Monday, January 7, 2013

Wolf-Children and Feral Man

Reverend J. A. L. Singh was ordained in 1912, and became a missionary.  He spent over 20 years wandering through the vast forests of deepest, darkest India, saving the souls of Hindus and assorted animists.  He travelled with an entourage of at least 30 men, including drummers, to reduce the odds of becoming lunch for tigers.  Along with his wife, he operated an orphanage in Midnapore. 
In the autumn of 1920, he began hearing reports from villagers who were living in fear because of “man-ghosts” in the forest.  An investigation revealed that the ghosts lived in a termite mound that also served as a wolves’ den.  Singh’s men broke into the den, and out flew three adult wolves and two pups.  Inside the den, they found two naked, filthy human girls who viciously bit and scratched the uninvited visitors.
The wolf-girls were captured and taken back to the orphanage, where they were given the names Amala and Kamala.  Amala was about one and a half years old, and Kamala was about eight.  They could not stand or walk upright, but moved on all fours, with their palms to the ground.  They could run so fast that it was difficult to catch them.  They frequently tried to escape and return to precious freedom. 
The girls did not speak, and preferred to sit by themselves, away from humans, in dark places.  They could see very well at night, and had excellent senses of smell and hearing.  After midnight, they would prowl around the yard and howl from time to time.  They ate and drank like dogs, preferring a diet of milk and raw meat.  Clothing was immediately ripped off.  They were impervious to cold weather, and did not sweat when it was very hot.
Amala died after a year in captivity.  Kamala survived for nine years at the orphanage.  Eventually, she learned to stand upright, and walk on two feet, in a wobbly manner.  She learned a few words, and could nod yes or no.  She died on November 14, 1929.  Reverend Singh kept a diary about the wolf girls, and took some photos of them.  A number of reputable witnesses verified that this story was true.  Skeptical scholars failed to discover evidence of mischief.
Singh’s diary became part one of Wolf-Children and Feral Man.  The second half of this book, Feral Man, was written by Professor Robert M. Zingg.  This book is fascinating, important, and unforgettable.
Zingg shared a number of stories about other wolf children, all quite similar to Amala and Kamala in their appearance, behavior, and failure to “recover” to “normal.”  In the old days, for religious reasons, Indians did not kill wolves, even if the wolf had their child in its mouth.  Poor families often slept outside during the hot season.  Field workers would commonly set their babies on the ground.  It was perfectly normal and natural for predators to seize easy prey.  An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 children were carried away by wolves every year in British India.  Some of the kids were not eaten, but raised by the wolves. 
One story described the capture of a wolf-boy who was about ten years old.  He had been snatched by wolves when he was four.  He could pronounce one sound: “aboodeea.”  At night, he would sit on a hillside, where he would be visited by his wolf relatives.  They would play and howl together.  Finally, the boy found his opportunity, and ran away.  He was never seen again.
A 1920 story told of an Indian boy who spent three years with leopards.  Many children were raised by bears in India, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark, Turkey, and Hungary.  There were also wolf-children in Europe.
In 1931, peasants in El Salvador discovered a wild child, but were not able to capture him until 1933.  When captured, Tarzancito was about five years old.  He had lived independently, dining on fruits, fish, and other forest delicacies.  Five years old!
Feral humans fiercely resisted efforts to capture them.  In captivity, they often made efforts to escape, even jumping from second floors.  Some were chained to trees.  They were not fond of the funny-looking creatures who wore clothing, ate cooked food, slept indoors, held them against their will, and tirelessly tried to force them into living a totally unnatural way of life.  Freedom was their one and only desire.
The German scholar, August Rauber, believed that feral humans were not ordinary idiots by birth; they were idiots because of isolation.  They suffered from dementia ex separatione.  The unfortunate feral idiots were separated from the wonders of civilization, and were reduced to living in harmony with the ecosystem.  Heretical wordsmiths cannot help but wonder if it’s not the other way around.  Could a global pandemic of dementia ex separatione be hammering billions of civilized people who have lost their connection to life?  Could this explain the perplexing daffiness of consumer society? 
Maybe 100,000 years ago, humans were more or less ordinary animals.  By 40,000 years ago, we were painting in caves, wearing clothes, using tools, and accumulating knowledge.  We had developed culture — a powerful and dangerous thing.  Cultural evolution could change human society a million times faster than genetic evolution, and cultural evolution has never been guided by wisdom or foresight.  About 10,000 years ago, exceedingly clever humans invented catastrophe — the domestication of plants and animals — and cultural evolution blasted into warp speed. 
In Ishmael, Daniel Quinn described two forms of human cultures: Takers (civilized) and Leavers (“primitive”).  The emergence of Taker societies created a sharp break from relative harmony and balance.  As it took root, Taker culture resembled an aggressive cancer that grows as quickly as possible until it kills its host.  Today, Leaver cultures are on the brink of extinction.
The Taker bubble is temporary, because it is totally unsustainable.  It will end either by wisdom or by self-inflicted wounds.  Our current disaster could never have happened without the development of culture — the ongoing accumulation of knowledge and technology. 
Is it possible that our acquisition of culture by 40,000 years ago moved us beyond the point of no return?  We ceased being ordinary animals, and turned into unstable loose cannons, entrusting our fate to the freaky whims of cultural evolution.  Were Leaver cultures simply embryonic forms of slowly developing disasters?  How many of them refused to accept new things like horses, maize, guns, and iron pots? 
Amala and Kamala were not Takers or Leavers.  They had no culture.  They show us a third category of humankind that we routinely disregard — free people — ordinary animals (like every newborn baby).  Free people had no language, no tools, no fire, no self-awareness, no directed thinking, no sin, no guilt, no greed.  They could catch birds, fish, and frogs with their bare hands, and eat them raw.  They ate birds’ eggs, roots, nuts, berries.  They could survive for years in a state of pure freedom, while leaving no scars on the ecosystem.  This was the norm for almost the entire hominid journey.
Takers, with their plows and armies, could easily suppress Leavers.  Leavers, with their spears and bows, could easily suppress the free people.  The free people were completely in harmony with their ecosystem, but were sitting ducks for human societies having cultures.
Zingg quoted a frustrated gent who failed to tame the Wild-boy of Aveyron, “In spite of five years’ ingenious tutelage, the boy never became a normal human being.”  What exactly is a normal human being?
Singh, J. A. L. and Zingg, Robert M., Wolf-Children and Feral Man, Archon Books, 1966.  [1939]


Anonymous said...

Ouch!...even the "leavers" are indicted as a transitory phase of the descent into culture.

Kirkpatrick Sale identifies the top of descent as the Toba supervolcanic eruption, which nearly wiped out all humans. He posits evidence of two behavioral changes took place then:

1. The initiation of domestication (earliest evidence of deliberate fires to make certain plants grow more.)

2. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans, due to the population "bottleneck," to which he references psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning's observations.

I'm not anywhere near feral, but the happiest days of my life have been away from school-city-work-bustle, and in the woods walking, on my farm watching the clouds go by, and around a primal campfire with friends making our own music.

You've written yet another insightful article, Richard, and I thank you for your efforts.


Sale, K. (2006) After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination. Duke University Press.

Glendinning, C. (1994) My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambhala.

What Is Sustainable said...

I'm re-reading A Short History of Progress. When I read it five years ago, I missed an important point. Ronald Wright talked about "progress traps." If you get better at hunting, you kill more game. Your clan grows in size, and you can't return to a simpler mode - you're trapped in a faster lane.

This is similar to what Dilworth said later, with his Vicious Circle Principle, which managed to penetrate my misconceptions.

Yes, campfires and walks in the woods are where the good magic lives.

David Neidel said...

Interesting blog entry! While I sympathize with the broader point that you are making, the case of Amala and Kamala appears to be a hoax (see

What Is Sustainable said...

Material that appears on Wikipedia has not been formally approved by a peer review process prior to publication. Wolf-Children and Feral Man was published in 1939, and 68 years later, when all the witnesses are dead, a surgeon from France, Serges Aroles, declares the book is bogus. Someone believes this, writes an article, and posts it on Wikipedia. Case closed?

I can’t read French. The site has a Feral Children page, and it says that Aroles’ book “will provide evidence ALL feral children, including Kamala and Amala, to be hoaxes, with just one exception: Marie Angelique Memmie LeBlanc.”

There have been numerous reports of feral children over the years, from a number of sources, and Professor Zingg describes many of these. If you look at his book, you will see that Zingg’s material includes lots of footnotes, and many are extensive. He specifically cites numerous sources and quotes them. He understood that he was addressing an extremely controversial subject, and he made every effort to cover his ass.

I just checked the first source cited by Zingg, Major General Sir William H. Sleeman K.C.B. of the Indian Army, who wrote A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude (1849-50). It was published in London in 1858, long before Singh and Zingg were born. I went to Google Books and downloaded the EPUB. A search for “wolf” took me to a feral child:

“A trooper, sent by the native governor of the district to Chandour, to demand payment of some revenue, was passing along the bank of the river near Chandour about noon, when he saw a large female wolf leave her den, followed by three whelps and a little boy. The boy went on all fours, and seemed to be on the best possible terms with the old dam and the three whelps…”

So, I cannot trust the opinions of Dr. Aroles.

David Neidel said...

Thanks for your response. And fair enough... As with so many things historical, it is very hard to ascertain the "truth" after the fact. As I said before, though, I appreciate you broader point regardless of how many actual cases of feral people it is based on.

What Is Sustainable said...

I also found a review of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Ashley Montagu, a famous anthropologist, published in 1943.

He concluded that the book was a hoax, because there was no “proof.” There were like five introductions to the book, by different gentlemen, affirming the story. The book mentions two people who saw Amala and Kamala in the wolf den. Montagu was unable to contact either — one was dead, and the other could not be located. Therefore, the whole thing was bullshit.

Back in 1943, it was common for scientists to see non-human animals as mindless machines, robots. The notion of wolves raising human children was probably a class A heresy — far beyond the parameters of acceptable thinking.

There is a newer book on feral humans, not as interesting as the above book, but probably still in print.
Michael Newton, Savage Girls and Wild Boys — A History of Feral Children, Picador, New York, 2004. [originally published in UK in 2002.]

Boss11 said...

can i post a very lovely poem.uhhhhhhhhh

Boss11 said...

the poem is........

Who saw the petals
drop from the rose?
I,said the spider,
But nobody knows

Who saw the sunset
flash on the bird?
I,said the fish
But nobody heard...

Who saw the fog
come over the sea?
I saw the sea pigeon
Only me

Who saw the first
green light of the sun?
I,said the night owl.
The only one

Who saw the moss
creep over the stone?
I,said the gray fox
All alone.........

Boss11 said...

please comment on the above poem. vey bad.......................

What Is Sustainable said...

Greetings aditya kumar, and thank you. Yes, it can be hard to believe things that you cannot see, hear, touch, or smell.

I also reviewed the book Don’t Sleep — There are Snakes. It described the Pirah√£ people of the Amazon.

They lived in the here and now, and believed what they could see. An event was only real if a living person in the community had been an eyewitness to it. Thus, a missionary’s stories about an ancient miracle worker named Jesus were purely meaningless.

What Is Sustainable said...

In 2022, I discovered that a scanned PDF of this book is a free download (64 mb).

Anonymous said...

Jevons paradox, if you will. Although I'm not sure why he gets to put his name on such a fundamental systems principle. I guess because it sounds good :)