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Monday 22 May 2017

The Saga of the Monkey Girl

     Last month the news came out that the tale of an Indian girl living with monkeys had turned out to be a damp squib, so to speak. Really, there is only one authenticated case of a human child raised by animals: Bello, discovered in 1996 living with a group of chimpanzees in the Falgore Forest of Nigeria. Alas! He was no Tarzan. He appears to have been abandoned by his parents because he was both physically and mentally disabled. Another possible case was Assicia, later renamed Sylvana, who was discovered wandering alone in the jungle of Liberia in the 1930s. Although not found in the company of apes, she walked around on all fours, on knees and fingertips, with ankles bent, and scratched herself like a monkey. Baby Hospital, found by a missionary in Sierra Leone, may be another case, but the information is too sketchy to form a conclusion. As for the enigma of the wolf children of Midnapore, I have discussed them elsewhere. Suffice it is to say that the story appears to check out, even though it is impossible.
     What is certain is that certain feral children have lived in association with animals - which is not to say they were reared by them. Saturday Mifune had definitely been watched for over a year with a band of monkeys in South Africa before being rescued in 1987. Since he never learned to talk, it seems likely he was originally autistic or mentally retarded. One about which there is no dispute is John Ssebunya of Uganda, who ran away from home when his father killed his mother, and lived for some time with vervet monkeys before he was rescued in 1989. Unlike the others, he is able to talk, and eventually joined the Pearl of Africa Children's Choir - which means that his rise was greater than even the fictional Tarzan's. The latter rose from an ape tribe to the House of Lords. John went from a monkey tribe to the house of the Lord.
     So when I read about Marina Chapman, who claimed to have lived for five years with capuchin monkeys, I was inspired to read her autobiography, The Girl With No Name.

Marina's Story
     We might start with this article, which is a pretty useful summary. Marina believes she was born about 1950 in Colombia. Very few of us can remember anything that happened to us before the age of three, and probably most of our memories are fragmentary before we went to school, which is the first major change in our life. Marina cannot remember her original name, but she does possess some fragmentary memories of her life before the disaster, such as her black dolly, stories of dangerous animals in the forest, and some of her mother's aphorisms, such as "Monkey see, monkey do" (or whatever the equivalent is in Spanish).
     And she did remember looking forward to her approaching fifth birthday, while sitting in her garden, when suddenly she was seized by strong hands, a handkerchief soaked in chloroform was held over her mouth, and she was carted off to the jungle, where she was unceremoniously dumped. The fifties were a period of extensive political violence in this part of the world, and she believes she was the victim of a mistaken kidnapping.
    The book gives a detailed and entertaining description of her first days in the forest. On the third day she found herself in the territory of a band of about thirty capuchin monkeys, which soon discovered she was not a threat and then, with the curiosity common to primates, came around to feel and examine her. Inevitably, the youngsters began to treat her as a possible plaything. She, in turn, watched what they ate, and copied them. She claims she could never stand eating leaves, flowers, or insects, and so stuck to fruit and nuts. There is a full description of the types of fruit and nuts consumed, and which ones to avoid. She discovered the way they cracked nuts with stones. (This is a well recognized capuchin habit.) She also watched how they cleaned themselves after defecating by using bits of moss, and found it a useful method.
     Once she consumed some poisonous plant, and ended up clutching her stomach and doubled up in pain. At that point, an individual she called Grandpa Monkey (? the alpha male) treated her as he presumably would have treated a member of his troop thus afflicted. He pushed and led her to a pool of muddy water, held her head under until she drank it, and vomited, after which he got her to drink from some fresh water. She relates that after that, there was a change in the troop's relationship to her; they began to treat her as one of their own, even grooming her, which is the standard primate method of socialisation. She describes the personalities of several of her favourites. At the same time, she learnt how to climb into the canopy herself in order to be with them.
     She also came across an Indian settlement, which she used to raid for cooked food, but when she tried to get them to adopt her, they shooed her off.
     So we must now visualise a girl spending most of the daylight hours in the canopy, but sleeping at night in a hollow dead tree trunk, naked, dirty, covered in scratches and scabs, with verminous hair falling in tangled dreadlocks down to her thighs.
     It was the length of this hair, coupled with some investigations as to its speed of growth, which led her to calculate that she spent five years in the jungle. Also, her first period occurred a few months after she came out.
     She was brought out by a group of "civilised" hunters, and deposited in the house of a woman called Ana-Karmen, where she had her skin washed and clothed, and her hair cut. She managed to regain knowledge of Spanish, and there are interesting vignettes about her return to human society, such as not being able to understand the working of door handles. But she was mistreated, and soon it became clear that she had been sold into a brothel, and would soon be delivered over to the use of the clients. Ultimately she ran away in terror, and ended up spending two or three years among the homeless street kids, sleeping rough, and living by stealing, using the skills learnt in the jungle to survive the urban jungle. Later, she was taken in by a family caused Santos, but again she was mistreated, and she found she was essentially a prisoner in a gangster's lair. Eventually, after a series of adventures, she was adopted by a family called Ferero, and chose for herself the name of Luz Marina.
     And there the story ends.

But Is It True?
     Surviving With Wolves, Misha Defonseca's compelling bestseller about her life as a feral child, was billed as "the most amazing story to come out of World War II". In fact, it was so amazing that people ultimately checked it out and exposed it as a hoax. (In hindsight, her brief association with wolves was not the least improbable part of the story.) So what about Marina? There is no record of her life before being rescued from the Santos house by Maruja Eusse, the mother of Sr Ferero.
     First of all, it is stated that part of the motivation for telling the story was to publicise two of her favourite charities: SFAC (Substitute Families for Abandoned Children), and NPC (Neotropical Primate Conservation).
     Secondly, while Misha Defonseca at least wrote her own story, The Girl With No Name was a group effort. It was done at the behest of her daughter, Vanessa James, who urged her to tell it chronological order, questioned her extensively about various aspects, did the work of identifying the monkeys and plants according to her mother's descriptions, and who ultimately shared the authorship. It turned out that Marina had been regaling her family with these stories for years. She used to get excited at rediscovering anything from her past, such as a picture of a certain plant or tree. She had unorthodox styles of parenting - such getting Vanessa and her sister to do monkey impressions for food.
     After dinner, we would often spend what felt like hours grooming one another, by picking through each other's hair. It was a magnificently relaxing activity - the best way to pass the time - and the three of us would appear to be in an almost drugged state. I remember when a case of head lice plagued our school - I think that was the highest point of our grooming careers!
     At one time I considered the possibility that Vanessa and Marina were joint partners in a hoax. However, apart from the fact that it seemed rather remote, what would have been the point? Marina could have done it by herself. Also, it would have required the tacit silence of her husband and other daughter, and one is reminded of the Norse proverb: Tell your secret to one, but not two, for everyone knows what is known to three. Furthermore, as the Telegraph investigator discovered, she had been telling the same story to the Fereros and their extended family from the time she was adopted. (Note: the journalist refers to them as the Eusse family. The Latin American custom is to tack the mother's maiden name onto the paternal surname, but it is the latter which is inherited.)
    Then again, people who have dramatic experiences only occasionally possess literary skills, and for this reason a lot of good stories are lost. In this case, Marina and Vanessa turned their manuscript over to a ghost writer, Lynne Barrett-Lee, who provided a note at the end. She described it as huge and unwieldy, and apparently it covered most of her life. Lynne decided it would have to be cut in half, leaving the section after her joining the Ferero family for a possible sequel. Then began another series of interviews.
     None of this is consistent with fraud.
     The same year that the book was published (2013), the National Geographic took her to Colombia to investigate her claims, and produced a TV documentary in two parts, each close to an hour in length.
     Firstly, she was able to identify the house which the late Ana-Karmen used as a brothel. Equally important, a neighbour was able to give evidence about the bad character of the woman - thus extending the authentication of her history back a few steps, if not to the jungle.
     Secondly, Marina was constantly referring to how small she was compared to children of the same presumed age. Now, John Ssebunya was found to be malnourished when rescued from the troop of vervet monkeys, so my immediate reaction was: I bet she was malnourished. Sure enough, x-rays of her limbs showed clear signs of childhood malnutrition. By examination of the Harris lines, the indicators of malnutrition, radiologist Dr Anna William identified two such periods, at the approximate ages of just after six, and at nine or ten.
      Presented with a range of South American monkeys, Marina identified the white headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus) as "her" monkeys. Primatologist Dr Thomas Defler admitted that her knowledge of the species was more extensive than that of the average capuchin enthusiast.
     I must admit that, if I had been the ghost writer, I would have enquired a lot more about the social organisation of the monkeys, their sounds and the gestures. The reason is that, when I was doing my studies in the late 1960s/early 1970s, field studies of monkeys and apes had just begun, and was all the rage. I even received a question on baboon behaviour for my Masters qualifying exam, and I recall a colleague brandishing a book and saying, "Isn't it great to be in a field so new that you can possess all the major books on it?" And a prime aspect of such research was to record the vocalisations and facial expressions of the species under investigation, and the context in which they occurred. (If you are interested in seeing an example in a non-primate species, click here for my own research.)
     It was interesting to note, therefore, that when Marina was taken into the jungle to look for monkeys, she attempted to call them by what we now know is their "trill" contact call. Also, although I have been out of the field for decades, the following paragraph leapt out at me:
I do, however, remember the first sound I seemed to be able to imitate was one they made often - a warning call. It was a kind of guttural scream - a loud, urgent noise. ... They had a particular stance that went with this as well. They'd pull a face - a sort of open-mouthed stare - before they did it and would rise up on their hind legs, almost on tiptoes. Then they'd start by making low sounds, presumably while assessing the level of threat. Then, once they'd identified an intruder and deemed it threatening, they'd move on to screeching, often swinging their heads from side to side.
     Somewhere in a peer-reviewed journal, not normally accessible to the non-specialist, there must be a paper which will confirm or refute this, but I haven't found it - although white headed capuchins are known to possess two alarm calls, one for aerial predators, and the other for ground predators. It is hard to believe that she would invent such a call, with its accompanying body language, out of her own imagination, but it was a pity it wasn't specifically looked at. Nevertheless, a primatologist, Dr Pablo Díaz did play a selection of primate calls to her, and was surprised that, despite the lapse of more than fifty years, she was able to identify many of them. When a capuchin call was played, she instantly, and unhesitantly, recognized it as belonging to "her" monkeys.
     Finally, and perhaps definitively, neurologist Prof. Carlos Conde linked her up to an apparatus designed to measure sweat level, heart rate, and similar autonomic responses. Similar to a polygraph, its function was to record unconscious and involuntary neurological reactions to emotions, which cannot be faked. As expected, there was little response to neutral pictures but, much to his surprise, her emotional reaction to photos of monkeys was as strong as to photos of her adopted family.

Verdict: Other children have been known to have lived as ferals in association with animals, albeit probably not for such an extended period. Therefore, although her story is extraordinary, it is not impossible. On balance, it would appear to be true.
     I suggest you read the book, which is both fascinating, and very well written.

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