The media is reporting that a woman has been discovered in Cambodia who has lived in the wild since the age of eight. She is unable to speak any language and has had no normal human contact for 19 years.

I find the subject of feral children both fascinating and discomfiting. Feral children (children that have been brought up in the wild) have been documented for many centuries and have inspired many of the great works of children’s literature, from the Jungle Book to Tarzan.

These children have been the subject of much scientific research since the eighteenth century because these cases seemed to posess a key insight to deep questions about humanity. What are humans like when civilisation and socialisation are removed? What is our natural state? Are we influenced by nature or by nurture? What aspects of us are innate and what are acquired traits? Are we naturally good, or naturally bad? Can we change who we are? Is religion instinctive? How close are we really to our animal neighbours? In what specific ways are we different?

In the case of feral children, many of these questions remain unanswered. The feral state, for a human child, is an unnatural one. Many of the children were damaged by their experience and needed significant care for the rest of their lives. In fact, cases of modern day child-neglect (such as the Genie case) are not dissimilar. The cases seem to emphasise strongly that we humans need others and probably have always done so. Studying a lone child in the woods eating roots and berries tells us very little, apart perhaps how great our ability to survive is and what effect isolation can have on the development of a young mind.

A few years ago, I wrote up some of the more celebrated stories here, and a very compresensive account of all the stories can be seen at this site.

Update 2006/01/24 : Reportedly, the girl has tried to speak, but the words are not intelligible.