Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

A recent article by the freelance journalist Maia Szalavitz recounts the story of Dani, a young girl who was rescued by social workers from the extreme neglect she had been living in since her birth in Plant City, Florida. Szalavitz describes Dani as a feral child, though she is quick to qualify that:

‘Feral’ isn’t a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. […] More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.

The article is typical of contemporary accounts of feral children in its association between the legends of wild children with supposedly “real” cases and cases of extreme neglect, though it differs somewhat in its emphasis on the empathic, rather than linguistic dimensions of the experience. Nevertheless, it is a recent and telling example of the cultural and historical forces that underpin the present day understanding of feral children, and hints at the folkloric associations that lay behind it.

The genealogy of feral children from legends to their present use in describing the state of extreme neglected has been noted and commented upon by others. However, it is still fruitful to consider the channels through which this transition took place, for it is evident that as a subject feral children exist at an interdisciplinary crossroads, uniting writers and folklorists with anthropologists, psychologists and linguists to create a communal space for discussion and dissent. This space, however, is not a democratic one, and despite the considerable prestige of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, the role played by folklore is remarkable. The example of Kamala and Amala, the wolf-girls of Midnapore, is particularly revealing in this regard. In looking at the literature surround these children, two important things are made evident. Firstly, it becomes fully apparent how in the study of feral children the arguments from folklore have been omnipresent. They are used to both support and detract from the credibility of the accounts. For those in favour of viewing the stories as credible, the persistent and widespread existence of a body of folklore surrounding feral children provides evidence of some deep underlying truth to the legends. For those critical of the stories, the folklore serves as an obscuring agent, contaminating observations and leading people to wrongly interpret lost children with congenital defects as authentic cases. However, in the discussions surrounding the authenticity of Amala and Kamala, most commentators referenced European myths when arguing for the use of folkloric evidence, while detractors focused on the fallibility of non-European superstitions. This divide leads to the second consideration of this paper. The epistemological value of evidence in these cases is consistently in favour of European accounts, suggesting that they, unlike native accounts, are less subject to the contaminating influences of folklore. There is a definitive undertone of colonialism in the anthropological discussion of feral children, for in many cases their presence was a negative indicator of the degree of civilization in the nations in which they were discovered. While their potential existence was thought to provide a wealth of information to western social science, the deprived conditions that gave rise to them was seen to indicate a need for further developmental work on the part of more civilized nations.

This study will begin with a look at the foundational legend of Romulus and Remus. From here, it will then be informative to consider the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan that appeared shortly before the “discovery” of the wolf-girls Amala and Kamala by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh in 1920. With this background it will then be possible to look at the folkloric, popular, psychological and anthropological literature surrounding accounts of feral children in light of the publication of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Singh and the anthropologist Dr. Robert M. Zingg from the University of Denver in 1942, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which folklore shaped the content and direction of the discussions.

The value of legends and literature to the study of feral children cannot be overstated. It is a common reference point and beginning for numerous articles on the subject, and can help explain the rapid process of mythologization that takes place when social scientists and other researches are confronted with “authentic” cases. As the folklorists Michael P. Carroll supports in his essay “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”: “The fact that modern observers have so often characterized a newly discovered ‘wolf-boy’ as a ‘real life Romulus’ or a ‘real life Remus’ is by itself evidence that the association of these contemporary accounts with the Classical tradition is well-established”. Though usually mentioned only in passing, as in Szalaitz’s article, these myths and legends are so often connected with their real world counterparts that they serve to set the stage of the discussion before any scientific study can even begin.

Considering its importance to the subsequent literature, the story of Romulus and Remus is surprisingly mild when compared to the amount of time that other feral children have reportedly spent in the wild. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BCE:

In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighbouring hills to quench her thrust, heard the children crying and made her way where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue.

That is all. There is no indication of how long they were left in the care of the she-wolf, and, aside from the occasional mention of their “urge to found a new settlement” where they had been found as infants, the actual role that the she-wolf played in their upbringing is marginal. If an undercurrent of the brother’s origin does exist, it takes the form of their subsequent mastery over nature, for shortly following this passage we find them hunting, shepherding, farming and robbing from thieves to share with their friends. The depiction is much the same in the first and second centuries ACE, as recorded by Plutarch, both in its brevity and in the subsequent power the brother’s gain over their surroundings. The wild upbringing of those destined to found civilizations has been noted by others, and is a consistent motif in a number of legendary accounts. It seems evident that the brothers serve here as representatives of a human community that gains mastery over its surroundings from a state of helplessness in its primeval origins. The situation is much the same in the popular literature that was written near the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some years before the discovery of the wolf-girls of Midnapore was announced, legends surrounding feral children would receive new interest with the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. As the historian Adriana S. Bezaquén observes:

by the end of the nineteenth century the ‘exotic’ animal-raised child entered literature and popular culture with striking and lasting power, first in Britain, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), and almost two decades later in the United States, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). The stories of wolf-child Mowgli and ape-boy Tarzan, though prompted by the spate of ‘real’ cases and incorporating elements form them, reinscribed the ancient myths. Far from the pitiful, brutish examples of inhumanity depicted in the ‘real’ accounts, Mowgli and Tarzan stood out and excelled among both animals and humans and thus became appealing heroes for readers stirred by imperialist dreams and hungry for vicarious adventure.

Unlike their real world counterparts, these modern legends took up the old banners of humanity’s mastery over nature and revitalized their cultural influence in the public imagination. To see this mastery one need only look at Kipling’s story “Mowgli’s Brothers” in which the feral child Mowgli comes to the wolves as a hunted, helpless infant, but who leaves their company in defiance after frightening away the tiger Shere Khan and exclaiming: “What ye will do, and what ye will not do, is not yours to say. That matter is with me; and that we may see the matter more plainly, I, the man, have brought here a little of the Red Flower [fire] which ye, dogs, fear”. In this respect the role of Tarzan is somewhat more complicated, however, for while Burroughs admitted being influenced by the legend of Romulus and Remus, as well as by the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book, his wild man is more ambivalent towards the allure of civilization. Nevertheless, both stories served to glorify the strength of human nature in a strange environment, and it is this element, as we shall see, that was often drawn upon by subsequent commentators.

According to his own accounts, the Reverend Singh discovered the wolf-girls of Midnapore on October 17th 1920, their existence was accidentally made known to the world on September 7th 1921, Amala died on September 21st of the same year, followed nine years later by Kamala on November 14th 1929. The “diary” of their story, alongside Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”, was only published in 1942. The protracted nature of the announcement helped to insure a continued interest in the subject, while figures such as Zingg tried to authenticate the account and coax a supposedly unwilling Singh to publish. The point in the Reverend’s description of the children that caused the most consternation was the claim that their eyes gave of a peculiar “blue glare” at night. This seemingly superhuman capacity to see in the dark, their sharp teeth, heightened sense of smell and hearing, and physical build which spoke of “strength and agility” all play into the myths that already surrounded the idea of feral children since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet only the question of the glowing eyes was noted by the experts who provided a commentary to the case. The description that Singh provides of their natural strength and agility is never compared with his numerous other accounts of their enfeebled states due to sickness and neglect that they experienced after their reintroduction to human society. These fantastic particulars aside, however, it was the potentially folkloric origin of the girls’ upbringing by wolves that saw the greatest attention by subsequent investigators.

Social scientists of every stripe often commented on the relationship between supposedly real feral children and their fantastical counterparts during the early years of the twentieth century. As Bezaquén observes, this trend has been a common one. The extreme rarity of the events that may produce feral children, the taboo on performing any controlled experiments, and the often remote location of the stories mean that: “In most cases, the human sciences have no choice but to feed on non-scientific accounts, reports, and testimonies, while regularly distrusting the actual value or authenticity of the evidence”. It is to these early commentaries that we now turn our attention.

On the side of folklore, it is clear that the interest in feral children was not one of a purely literary or mythic bent, but that several writers, most notably J.H. Hutton, understood it as their responsibility to help cast judgment on the credibility of the real life evidence. Hutton gave a presidential address entitled “Wolf-Children” in the March 1940 edition of the journal Folklore. He began the discussion with comments on the interest in wolf-children in a recent edition of The Times, and followed this by stating that:

it is clear that apart from any particular interest the subject of wolf-children may have in itself, the point at issue, which is whether such stories are to be treated as credible or to be wholly discredited, is of no little importance to a Society which is primarily concerned with folklore. For the wide prevalence of stories of this kind indicates a rooted belief in their possibility.

For Zingg, Hutton would serve as an important source of census information on life in India and provide folkloric comments in regards to the stories of feral children. While in this text he was “indebted to the kindness of Dr. Robert M. Zingg” for several of his references, he would ultimately decline the opportunity to write a forward in Zingg’s and Singh’s account of the children’s development. He declined because he felt that in the end their work was an “improved version” of what actually occurred. Despite Hutton’s reservations about the complete reliability of their account and his own feelings of inconclusiveness about the evidence at hand, he did not discredit the possibility that Amala and Kamala were reared by wolves in part because of the widespread presence of these very myths. This attempt to account for the legends of feral children by appealing to the possibility of their reality was also characteristic of the popular articles on the subject.

In the articles of the 1940s a monolithic depiction of science is presented as attempting to come to grips with the stories of feral children. Lois Mattox Miller typifies this approach in his article “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon Boy”, which dramatically begins with the following homage to both myth and science alike:

From Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, through Kiplind’s Mowgli to Tarzan, stories of human babies adopted by wolves, bears, or apes, and reared to super-manhood far from human society have fascinated people of all ages in all climes. Scientists, always skeptical of the unauthenticated, have nevertheless searched for evidence of weird reality behind so persistent a myth pattern. […] [N]ow, for the first time, science has evidence of two cases of humans who may have been reared by wild animals; he tragic Wolf-children of Midnapore; and Lucas, he Baboon Boy of South Africa.

While Miller’s article points out that: “To the casual reader, these are just fascinating wonder-tales; but the scientists look to them to throw light on the relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour patters”, his discussion concludes on a triumphant note transcending the arena of nature and nurture to the glorification of humanity: we can ape better than the apes and live among wolves, and this likely demonstrates a greater, rather than a lesser intelligence in the cases of these children. We shall see that this sense of triumph, characteristic of the legends, was mirrored in several of the social scientists own accounts.

The role of folklore as potential evidence for the existence of feral children and the idea of human triumph that accompanies this are both present in the introductory sections of Wolf-Children and Feral Man. To begin with, the foreword presented by Dr. Ruggles Gates from the Human Heredity Bureau, even more forcefully reiterates the position of Hutton in his interpretation of the connection between folklore and reality. It also indicates a degree of value judgment, insofar as it assumes that feral children are exclusively the produce of ruder states of civilization, for he comments that:

The evidence is I think, conclusive that in former centuries when civilization was in a much ruder state, wolf-children were occasionally found even in Europe. The story of Romulus and Remus turns out to be mythical, but founded upon earlier myths which presumably had an ultimate substratum of truth. […] It is only reasonable to suppose that such legends were not pure inventions but were founded upon rare occurrences, among peoples in an early stage of culture.

In his contributing foreword Dr. Arnold Gesell, then director of the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, presents a decidedly triumphant account of the wolf-girls of Midnapore. Despite the death of Amala at an early age, he stresses the fact that Kamala survived: “To an extraordinary degree she survived psychologically and achieved human estate”. Furthermore, despite his assertion that the dichotomy of nature and nurture is “barren”, he concludes his contribution to the text with the comment that: “The career of Kamala, even though cut short, demonstrates anew the stamina of the human spirit and the operation of developmental reserves which always ameliorate the adversities of abnormal fate”. Among the contributing scholars to the Reverend Singh’s diary, Dr. Gesell stands out as being exceptionally representative of the influence of folklore and popular myth. Bezaquén explicitly points out this effect on Gesell’s thought and how it was manifested in his subsequent publications on the matter. As she describes in regards to his Wolf Child and Human Child: Reconciling the Extraordinary and the Normal: “Despite his protestations to the contrary, he resorted to the emotional and evocative power of fiction to lend cohesion to the whole. His recurring references to Kipling’s Mowgli implicitly afforded another narrative framework, a romantic alternative to his scientific exposition of the normal child’s growth, against which the story of Kamala might be read”. If this is any indication of the intellectual atmosphere among the social scientists that supported the Reverend Singh’s claims, then it is clear that folklore was never far from center stage both implicitly and explicitly. It even formed the basis of dissenting views.

Psychologists, tending to be more sceptical, nevertheless acknowledged the importance of folklore in these matters, albeit often for different reasons. Marian W. Smith in her 1954 article on wild children and the principle of reinforcement, points out that: “Before the […] cases can be analyzed it is necessary to accept them as evidence, even if only temporarily”. She stresses that a tacit acceptance of the truth of the matter rests on shaky ground because it is difficult to state with any certainty which came first, claims about the actual existence of feral children, or the folklore in which they played a largely symbolic role. However, rather than removing the place of folklore in the scientific discussion, it instead gives it a central place, because as Smith observes in these cases: “The interplay between reality and belief is far from simple”.

This outlook is particularly evident in the writings of one of the more public detractors of the credibility of the wolf-girls of Midnapore, the psychologist Wayne Dennis. In his 1941 article “The Significance of Feral Man” he uses the existence of a body folklore surrounding feral children in India as warning sign. He cautions his readers, reasoning that:

Since the idea of wolf-children is current in India […] if a mute, who could give no account of his past, were found in India at the present time, it is easy to guess the direction of speculation concerning his origin. … India possesses a large number of unfortunates to whom such a myth could be fitted.

Unlike the vision of human triumph presented by Gesell, Dennis considers most, if not all of the cases of feral children to be the products of folkloric inspired misunderstandings of children with mental defects who were separated from their parents for short periods of time and then discovered by others. In this way folklore becomes the defining point for him and many other detractors of the authenticity of feral children. As he comments later in The Significance of Feral Man: “In searching for the origin of the belief that a specific child was reared by beasts it would be relevant to examine the folk lore [sic] of the region from which came the original story.“ Yet while describing it as a source of scientific contamination in the search for feral children, Dennis nevertheless ascribes to folklore a great deal of importance, particularly in the context of underdeveloped societies. It is to the idea of the obscuring effects of folklore in a colonial context that we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the science of anthropology developed as an instrument of colonialism. This seems particularly evident in the case of feral children, whose presence in a nation inevitably served as a comment on its state of civilization. Western observers were quick to note that the phenomenon: “Has seldom if ever been witnessed by a European, at any rate since the seventeenth century”. As we have already seen in the comments made by Dr. Gates they could only have appeared “even in Europe” among “peoples in an early stage of culture”. Yet, for him, this early stage of culture is part of what makes India “a paradise for the anthropologist”. Western social scientists’ fascination with feral children was complicated by the prejudicial distrust of “uncivilized” folklore, and the understanding that their presence in a nation served as further proof that it was in an early stage of development.

As we have already seen to a large extent, social scientists that wanted to support the possibility of feral children turned to the validity of western folklore to help support their claims. However, those who sought to discount the idea of feral children often disparaged the epistemological value of the accounts made by “uncivilized” native peoples, who were more likely to fall victim to superstition (in other words, their own folklore). The colonial values underpinning these critiques are evident Dennis’ The Significance of Feral Man, in which he reminds the reader to be skeptical because: “The desire to please and likewise the desire to pull the leg of the white man are not unknown among the darker-skinned races”. However, these views reach their most blatant form in the work of an earlier scholar that Dennis makes references to: the nineteenth century British anthropologist E. Burnet Tylor. In Tylor’s “Wild Men and Beast-Children”, he makes similar critiques of the existence of feral children based on the unreliability of uncivilized accounts. He incredulously states that: “we have no other evidence than that of natives, and it is pretty well known what Oriental evidence is worth as to such matters”, and, comparing the account of feral children to a native belief that people are born with crocodile twins concludes that: “if all the Asiatics living were to declare with one accord that a child and a crocodile had been born twins at one birth, we should not believe it”. In the face of this colonial background it is therefore telling that Zingg himself felt compelled to remind his readers to be more accepting in their judgements, for “there should be some presumption that native Indian testimony of even the lowest classes is not always necessarily false”.

There are few questions thornier than those of the first origins of a thing. All the subsequent promises and pains of its entire history have the tendency of becoming inscribed in its beginnings, and a tangled mess ensues, which after all, is what the present is. If any topic of consideration is more beset with difficulties, it is the question of human nature. The image of the feral child or wild man through history and legend has in many ways exemplified both of these quandaries, and done so with all the poignancy of an infant abandoned in the woods. Kamala and Amala did exist, but the question of whether or not they were the wolf-girls of Midnapore is another matter. At the very least, their story serves to highlight the importance and influence of folklore in the social sciences, and show how literature together with myth can shape the nature and direction of scientific debates. Here, it is important to note that Zingg’s and Gesell’s approach to the value of folklore was not in itself unscientific or misguided, any more than Dennis’ assertions to the contrary, what was interesting was the channels through which the two parties operated, and the shape that their discussion took on in light of the folkloric undercurrents of their subject matter. Likewise, the colonial prejudices of Dennis and Tylor can perhaps be expected, but in this matter they serve to bring light to an area in the history of the social sciences that would benefit form further elucidation. If the presence of feral children is both indicative of an “anthropological paradise” as well as a negative indicator of a nations state of civilization, then what does this indicate about the role and responsibility of this kind of science? Furthermore, the marked preference of European folklore on the side of Singh’s supporters and the attention drawn to the folklore of India by his detractors is some indicator of the lack of self-reflexivity present in early anthropology. As the grotesque cases of Dani and other neglected children testify, to this day there is the desire to recast cases of abandonment in the present day to those of human triumph in its legendary past. In this way it is indicative of a basic human need, a need that demands some role for folklore when faced with the damning evidence against the virtue of civilization that is and always has been the feral child.

For More Information:





Dennis, Wayne. “The Significance of Feral Man”. In The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1941). p. 425-32.

Gates, R. Ruggles. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xiii-xvi

Gesell, Arnold. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xvii-xviii.

Hutton, J.H. “Wolf-Children”. In Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), 9-31.

—. “Wolf-Children and Feral Man”. In Man, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), 631.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2009. Wikisource. 13 April 2009. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Jungle_Book>

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books 1-4 of The History of Rome From its Foundations. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.

Miller, Lois Mattox. “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon-Boy”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jul. 13, 1940). p. 26-9.

Plutarch, Romulus. Trans. John Dryden. The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web Atomics. 13 April 2009 <http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/romulus.html>

Singh. J.A.L. “The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore (India)”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 3-126.

Smith, Marian W. “Wild Children and the Principle of Reinforcement”. In Child Development, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1954). p. 115-23.

The Society for Science & the Public. “Wolf-Child Stories Are Doubted by Psychologist”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 39, No. 17 (Apr. 26, 1941), p. 261.

Tylor, E. Burnet. “Wild Men and Beast-Children”. In Anthropological Review, Vol 1. No. 1. (May, 1863). p. 21-32.

Zingg, Robert M. “Introduction: Continued”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xxxv-xli.

—. “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 131-365.

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Michael P. “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1984), 63-85.

Lewis, Diane. “Anthropology and Colonialism” In Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec.,1973), 581-602.

Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Szalaitz, Maia. “A Feral Child’s Journey to Recovery: How One Expert Helps Children Heal After Severe Abuse and Neglect”. 2009. MSN Health & Fitness. 12 April 2009. < http://health.msn.com/health-topics/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100234082&gt1=31045>


One thought on “Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

  1. Nightingale says:

    As always, your research is prolific and detailed. I was doing a paper on Novel Treatments of Autism, and the origins of the diagnosis for a Psyche class that I took with a Professor right here in Waterloo, that had the fortune and opportunity to have studied with the prolific developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. It was through my discourse with Dr. Rogers, that I first came across case studies of ‘feral children’. It is likely that, a certain number of these children, were in fact, readily diagnosable as suffering from Autism. There are problematic elements to these diagnosis due to the description of Autism as belonging to a spectrum, wherein any number of symptoms may be present or absent.

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