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A feral child (feral, i.e., "wild" or undomesticated) is a human child who, from a very young age, has lived in isolation from human contact and has remained unaware of human social behavior, and unexposed to language. Feral children are extremely rare. Throughout the world, just over a hundred incidences of the phenomenon have been reported.[1] They are thus considered very interesting case studies from a sociological perspective.

Origins and effects[edit | edit source]

Feral children may be separated from society by being lost or abandoned in the wild. The category also includes children who have been purposely kept apart from human society, e.g. kept in a room in solitary confinement. Sometimes abandonment is because of parents rejecting a child's severe intellectual impairment or physical disability, and some feral children experience severe child abuse or trauma before being abandoned.

Some myths and legends, and later many fictional stories depict feral children as having been reared by wild animals such as wolves or bears. Famous examples include Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, as well as the legend of Romulus and Remus.

Legendary and fictional feral children are often depicted as growing up with relatively normal human intelligence and skills and an innate sense of culture or civilization, coupled with a healthy dose of survival instincts; their integration into human society is made to seem relatively easy. In reality, however, feral children lack the basic social skills which are normally learned in the process of enculturation. For example, they may be unable to learn to use a toilet, have trouble learning to walk upright and display a complete lack of interest in the human activity around them. They often seem mentally impaired and have almost insurmountable trouble learning a human language. The subject is treated with a certain amount of realism in François Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant Sauvage (UK: The Wild Boy, US: The Wild Child), where a scientist's efforts in trying to rehabilitate a feral boy meet with great difficulty.

It is essentially impossible to convert a child who became isolated at a very young age into a relatively normal member of society. Such individuals need close care throughout their lives, if they are to live in human society. As they are "discovered", feral children also tend to become the subject of lively scientific and media interest. Once the excitement dies down and their limitations in terms of learning culture and social behaviour become obvious, frustration can set in and they often spend the rest of their lives being passed from one caregiver to another. It is common for them to die young, though obviously, their potential lifespan if they had been left in the wild is difficult to know.

Ancient reports[edit | edit source]

Herodotus, the historian, wrote that Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus I (Psamtik) sought to discover the origin of language by conducting an experiment with two children. Allegedly, he gave two newborn babies to a shepherd, with the instructions that no one should speak to them, but that the shepherd should feed and care for them while listening to determine their first words. The hypothesis was that the first word would be uttered in the root language of all people. When one of the children cried “becos” (a sound quite similar to the bleating of sheep) with outstretched arms the shepherd concluded that the word was Phrygian because that was the sound of Phrygian word for “bread.” Thus, they concluded that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians. The veracity of this story is, of course, impossible to determine.

The Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

Real-life cases[edit | edit source]

Kaspar Hauser

Of the approximately 100 cases often cited, few have been confirmed or well studied, many lack detail, and many may have been exaggerated and embellished. Here is a limited list:

Neurology of feral childrens brains[edit | edit source]

Modern neuroscientific studies of the brains of such abandoned children show substantial physical differences between their brain and matched controls

Main article: Neuroscientific studies of feral children

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes and references[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Kenneth B. Kidd (2004). Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4295-8.
  • Michael Newton (2002). Savage Boys and Wild Girls: A History of Feral Children. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-21460-6.

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