Scientists Discovered A Wild Boy In The Woods And Conducted Experiments To Forcibly Civilize Him

In 1800, a young boy was found wandering the woods of Aveyron, France. The child was clearly feral, having no contact with humans in a long time, and he was referred to as the Wild Boy of Aveyron. He was eventually brought to the Paris Institute for Deaf-Mute Children, as he was not able to speak.

While the child was at the Institute, Jean-Marc Garpard Itard took an interest in him and believed he could re-educate him to be a "normal boy." He named the child Victor and worked with him for several years in an attempt to "civilize" Victor of Aveyron.

Throughout history, many feral children have been discovered, such as John Ssebunya and Dina Sanichar, but Victor's discovery came at the right time to be embroiled in the hot debates over human civilization, socialization, and nature vs. nurture, that raged at the time.

  • Victor Was Considered The Perfect Experiment On Nature Vs. Nurture
    Photo: United Artists

    Victor Was Considered The Perfect Experiment On Nature Vs. Nurture

    In the early 1800s, philosophers and scientists were trying to answer significant questions about human development and civilization, to understand man's place in the world. How much of humanity is innate, and how much is taught? Feral children were considered an excellent experiment, as they went without any influence from human society. 

    When Itard outlined his principles for treating Victor, he explained his thoughts on the debate. Itard stated that man in a pure state of nature is inferior to many animals, as a human child cannot develop normally when left alone. He believed man requires generations of civilization to reach "moral superiority."

    Many philosophers at this time also believed in the idea of the "noble savage," which would be corrupted by civilization and the desire for property.

    This debate played into the colonialism of the time (and the "savages" the Europeans saw around the world), the understanding of child development, and the developing discipline of psychology.

  • Victor Never Learned To Speak
    Photo: United Artists

    Victor Never Learned To Speak

    Jean-Marc Itard tried for years to get Victor to speak, but his attempts ultimately ended in failure. At one point, Itard described trying to force Victor to verbally request water. He deprived Victor of water to the point of desperation, but still could not make him speak the word.

    Eventually, these studies on feral children led scientists to theorize there is a "critical period" for language acquisition during childhood. While a child has the innate ability to learn any language, if the child is not exposed to any language during early childhood, he will never be able to fully acquire language.

    For Victor, this theory proved true. While Victor could understand simple questions and commands, he died at the age of 40 without ever speaking a complete sentence.

  • Victor Was Discovered In The Wild At 11 Years Old
    Photo: United Artists

    Victor Was Discovered In The Wild At 11 Years Old

    When Victor was found in the forests of Aveyron, he was approximately 11 years old. His origins were unknown. No one knew how he came to be abandoned in the forest, or how long he had been there.

    Jean-Marc Itard assessed Victor in an attempt to find out more about his origins. Based on his behavior and the multitude of scars on his body, he concluded Victor was likely abandoned at the age of two or three. Victor also had a scar on his neck where he had been cut by a sharp instrument, which may have been the result of his original caretaker's attempt to murder him.

    Victor probably had not been exposed to human contact in almost a decade.

  • Victor Did Learn To Write and Sign
    Photo: United Artists

    Victor Did Learn To Write and Sign

    While Itard ultimately failed to teach Victor to speak, he did teach him to communicate in other ways. Starting with words for absolute needs and branching out to other words, Itard taught Victor to spell out words in metal letters. Victor developed a fairly large vocabulary that he could use to communicate this way. He was soon able to write words from memory.

    Itard also taught Victor to communicate via sign language. Even though Victor was never able to speak, Itard showed Victor had some capacity for language even starting at his late age.

  • Victor Did Not Respond To Heat, Cold, Or Loud Noises
    Photo: United Artists

    Victor Did Not Respond To Heat, Cold, Or Loud Noises

    Itard found that living in the wild gave Victor a strange lack of response to his environment. He did not seem to be affected by heat or cold. Even while naked in freezing weather, he did not show any reaction to the cold. He also dipped his hands in boiling water without any apparent pain and without developing any scars.

    Victor's hearing seemed normal, and he would perk up at the sound of a walnut cracking, but he might completely ignore the sound of a pistol firing near his head. The condition seemed to be a form of selective hearing he developed in the wild.

  • Many Scholars Thought Victor Was Mentally Handicapped
    Photo: Wikipedia

    Many Scholars Thought Victor Was Mentally Handicapped

    Many of Itard's contemporaries considered his work with Victor futile, as they believed Victor was mentally handicapped and would never be able to be "normal." A committee of experts headed by Itard's own mentor, Philippe Pinel, declared Victor an "incurable idiot." Itard challenged the diagnosis and took on Victor's training to prove it.

    Although no one will ever know for certain if Victor was affected by any diagnosis other than his feral upbringing, Itard was able to teach Victor considerable skills in a difficult case. It is likely Victor's condition resulted only from his isolation from human contact during several critical developmental years.