Wild Children / Folklore, fairy tales, mythic living


Original post has a beautiful array of illustrations….

Notes from a Dartmoor studio on folklore, fairy tales, fantasy, mythic arts & mythic living 

by Terri Windling

Into the Woods, 10: Wild Children

Today I’m on the trail of the Wild Children of myth, lore, and fantasy: children lost in the forest, abandoned, stolen, reared by wild animals, and those for whom wilderness is their natural element and home.

Tales of babies left in the woods (and other forms of wilderness) can found in the myths, legends, and sacred texts of cultures all around the globe. The infant is usually of noble birth, abandoned and left to certain death in order to thwart a prophesy — but fate intervenes, the child survives and is raised by wild animals, or by humans who live on the margins of the wild: shepherds, woodsmen, gamekeepers, and the like. When the child grows up, his or her true identity is revealed and the prophesy is fulfilled.

In Persian legends surrounding Cyrus the Great, for example, it is prophesized at his birth that he will grow up to take the crown of his grandfather, the King of Media. The king orders the baby killed and Cyrus is left on a wild mountainside, where he’s rescued either by the royal herdsman or a bandit (depending on the version of the tale) and raised in safety. He grows up, learns his true parentage, and not only captures the Median throne but goes on to conquer most of central and southeast Asia.

In Assyrian myth, a fish-goddess falls in love with a beautiful young man, gives birth to a half-mortal daughter, abandons the child in the wilderness, and then kills herself in shame. The baby is fed by doves and survives to be found and raised by a royal shepherd…and grows up to become Semiramis, the great Warrior Queen of Assyria.

In Greek myth, Paris, the son of King Priam, is born under a prophesy that he will one day cause the downfall of Troy. The baby is left on the side of Mount Ida, but he’s suckled by a bear and manages to live — growing up to fall in love with Helen of Troy and spark the Trojan War.

From Roman myth comes one of the most famous babes-in-the-wood stories of all, the legend of Remus and Romulus. Numitor, the good King of Alba Long, is overthrown by Amulius, his wicked brother, and his daughter is forced to become a Vestal Virgin in order to end his line. Though locked in a temple, the girl becomes pregnant (with the help of Mars, the god of war) and gives birth to a beautiful pair of sons: Remus and Romulus. Amulius has the twins exposed on the banks of the Tiber, expecting them to perish; instead, they are suckled and fed by a wolf and a woodpecker, and survive in the woods. Adopted by a shepherd and his wife, they grow up into noble, courageous young men and discover their true heritage — whereupon they overthrow their great-uncle, restore their grandfather to his throne, and, just for good measure, go on to found the city of Rome.

In Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Michael Newton delves into the mythic symbolism inherent in the moment when abandoned children are saved by birds or animals. “Restorations and substitutions are at the very heart of the Romulus and Remus story,” he writes; “brothers take the rightful place of others, foster parents bring up other people’s children, the god Mars stands in for a human suitor. Yet the crucial substitution occurs when the she-wolf saves the lost children. In that moment, when the infants’ lips close upon the she-wolf’s teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succor is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature. Nature’s mercy admonishes humanity’s unnatural cruelty: only a miracle of kindness can restore the imbalance created by human iniquity.” 

In myth, when we’re presented with children orphaned, abandoned, or raised by animals, it’s generally a sign that their true parentage is a remarkable one and they’ll grow up to be great leaders, warriors, seers, magicians, or shamans. As they grow, their beauty, or physical prowess or magical abilities betray a lineage that cannot be hidden by their humble upbringing. (Rarely do we encounter a mythic hero whose origins are truly low; at least one parent must be revealed as noble, supernatural, or divine.) After a birth trauma and a miraculous survival always comes a span of time symbolically described as “exile in the wilderness,” where they hone their skills, test their mettle, and gather their armies, their allies, or their magic, before returning (as they always do) to the world that is their birthright.

When we turn to folk tales and fairy tales, however, although we also find stories of children abandoned in the wild and befriended by animals, the tone and intent of such tales is markedly different. Here, we’re not concerned with the affairs of the gods or with heroes who conquer continents — for folk tales in the Western tradition, unlike myths and hero epics, were passed through the centuries primarily by storytellers of lower classes (usually women), and tended to be focused on themes more relevant to ordinary people. Abandoned children in fairy tales (like Hansel and Gretel, Little Thumbling, or the broommaker’s twins in The Two Brothers) aren’t destined for greatness or infamy; they are exactly what they appear to be: the children of cruel or feckless parents. Such parents exist, they have always existed, and fairy tales  did not gloss over these dark facts of life. Indeed, they confronted them squarely. The heroism of such children lies not in the recovery of a noble lineage but in the ability to survive and transform their fate — and to outwit those who would do them harm without losing their lives, their souls, or their humanity in the process.

Children also journey to the forest of their own accord, but usually in response to the actions of adults: they enter the woods at a parent’s behest (Little Red Riding Hood), or because they’re not truly wanted at home (Hans My Hedgehog), or in order to flee a wicked parent, step-parent, or guardian (Seven Swans, Snow White and Brother & Sister). Disruption of a safe, secure home life often comes in the form a parent’s remarriage: the child’s mother has died and a heartless, jealous step-mother has taken her place. The evil step-mother is so common in fairy tales that she has become an iconic figure (to the bane of real step-mothers everywhere), and her history in the fairy tale canon is an interesting one. In some tales, she didn’t originally exist. The murderous queen of Snow White, for example, was the girl’s own mother in the oldest versions of the story (the Brothers Grimm changed her into a step-parent in the 19th century) — whereas other stories, such as Cinderella and The Juniper Tree, have featured second wives since their earliest known tellings.

Some scholars who view fairy tales in psychological terms believe that the “good mother” and “bad step-mother” symbolize two sides of a child’s own mother: the part they love and the part they hate. Casting the “bad mother” as a separate figure, they say, allows the child to more safely identify such socially unacceptable feelings. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that fairy tales were not originally stories specially intended for children. And, as Marina Warner points out (in From the Beast to the Blonde), this “leeches the history out of fairy tales. Fairy or wonder tales, however farfetched the incidents they include, or fantastic the enchantments they concoct, take on the color of the actual circumstance in which they were or are told. While certain structural elements remain, variant versions of the same story often reveal the particular conditions of the society in which it is told and retold in this form. The absent mother can be read as literally that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother’s successor.”

We rarely find step-fathers in fairy tales, wicked or otherwise, but the fathers themselves can be treacherous. In stories like Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, and The Handless Maiden, for example, it is a cowardly, cruel, or incestuous father who forces his daughter to flee to the wild. Even those fathers portrayed more sympathetically as the dupes of their black-hearted wives are still somewhat suspect: they are happy at the story’s end to have their children return unscathed, but are curiously powerless or unwilling to protect them in the first place. Though the father is largely absent from tales such as Cinderella, The Seven Swans, and Snow White, the shadow he casts over them is a large one. He is, as Angela Carter has pointed out,  “the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict.”

Family upheaval has another function in these tales, beyond reflecting real issues encountered in life: it propels young heroes out of their homes, away from all that is safe and familiar; it forces them onto the unknown road to the dark of the forest. It’s a road that will lead, after certain tests and trials, to personal and worldly transformation, pushing the hero past childhood and pointing the way to a re-balanced life — symbolized by new prosperity, or a family home that has been restored, or (for older youths) a wedding feast at the end of the tale. These young people are “wild” only for a time: it’s a liminal state, a rite-of-passage that moves the hero from one distinct phase of life to another. The forest, with all its wonders and terrors, is not the final destination. It is a place to hide, to be tested, to mature. To grow in strength, wisdom, and/or power. And to gain the tools needed to return to the human world and repair what’s been broken…or build anew.

In one set of folk tales, however, children who disappear into the woods do not often return: the “changeling” stories of babies (and older children)  stolen by faeries, goblins, and trolls. Why, we might ask, are the denizens of Faerie so interested in stealing the offspring of mortals? Some faery lore suggests that the children are destined for lives as servants or slaves of the Faerie court; or that they are kept, in the manner of pets, for the amusement of their faery masters. Other stories and ballads (Tam Lin, for example) speak of a darker purpose: that the faeries must pay a tithe of blood to the Devil every seven years, and prefer to pay with mortal blood rather than blood of their own. In other traditions, however, it’s simply the beauty of the children that attracts the faeries, who are also known to kidnap pretty young men and women, artists, poets, and musicians.

The ability of faeries to procreate is a debatable issue in faery lore. Some stories maintain that the faeries do procreate, though not as often as humans. By occasionally interbreeding with mortals and claiming mortal babes as their own, they bring new blood into the Faerie Realm and keep their bloodlines strong. Other tales suggest that they cannot breed, or do so with such rarity that jealousy of human fertility is the motive behind child-theft.

Some stolen children, the tales tell us, will spend their whole lives in the Faerie Realm, and may even find happiness there, losing all desire for the lands of men. Other tales tell us that human children cannot thrive in the otherworld, and eventually sicken and die for want of mortal food and drink. Some faeries maintain their interest in child captives only during their infancy, tossing the children out of the Faerie Realm when they show signs of age. Such children, restored to the human world, are not always happy among their own kind, and spend their mortal lives pining for a way to return to Faerie.

Another type of story that comes from the deep, dark forest is the Feral Child tale, found in the shadow realm that lies between legend and fact.  There have been a number of cases throughout history of young children discovered living in the wild, a few of which have been documented to a greater or lesser degree. Generally, these seem to be children who have been abandoned or fled abusive homes, often at such a young age that they’ve ceased to remember any other way of life. Attempts to “civilize” these children, to teach them language, and to curb their animal-like behaviors, are rarely entirely successful — which leads to all sorts of questions about what it is that shapes human culturalization as we know it.

One of the most famous of these children was Victor, the Wild Boy of Avignon, discovered on a mountainside in France in the early 19th century. His teacher, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, wrote an extraordinary account of his six years with the boy — a document which inspired François Truffaut’s film The Wild Child, and Mordicai Gerstein‘s wonderful novel The Wild Boy. In an essay for The Horn Book, Gerstein wrote: “Itard’s reports not only provide the best documentation we have of a feral child, but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be)…. Itard’s ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy’s face buried in the man’s hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, the more civilized he became, the more the distance between them grew.” (You’ll find Gerstein’s full essay here; scroll to the bottom of the page.)

In India in the 1920s two small girls were discovered living in the wild among a pack of wolves. They were captured (their “wolf mother” shot) and taken into an orphanage run by a missionary, Reverend Joseph Singh. Singh attempted to teach the girls to speak, walk upright, and behave like humans, not as wolves — with limited success.  His diaries make for fascinating (and horrifying) reading. Several works of fiction were inspired by this story, but the ones I particularly recommend are Children of the Wolf, a poignant children’s novel by Jane Yolen, and “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” a wonderful short story by Karen Russell (published in her collection of the same title). Also, Second Nature by Alice Hoffman is an excellent contemporary novel on the Feral Child theme.

More recently, in 1996, an urban Feral Child was discovered living with a pack of dogs on the streets of Moscow. He resisted capture until the police finally separated the boy from his pack. “He had been living on the street for two years,” writes Michael Newton. “Yet, as he had spent four years with a human family [before this], he could talk perfectly well. After a brief spell in a Reutov children’s shelter, Ivan started school. He appears to be just like any other Moscow child. Yet it is said that, at night, he still dreams of dogs.”

When we read about such things as adults and parents, the thought of a child with no family but wolves or dogs is a deeply disturbing one. . .but when we read from a child’s point of view, there is something secretly thrilling about the idea of life lived among an animal pack, or shedding the strictures of civilization to head into the woods. In this, of course, lies the enduring appeal of stories like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. Explaining his youthful passion for such tales, Mordecai Gerstein writes: “The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily available and that had, in Kipling’s version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends.”

And here we begin to approach another aspect of Wild Child (and Orphaned Hero) tales that makes them so alluring to many young readers: the idea that a parentless life in the wild might be a better, or a more exciting, one. For children with difficult childhoods, the appeal of running away to the forest is obvious: such stories provide escape, a vision of life beyond the confines of a troubled home. But even children from healthy families need fictional escape from time to time. In the wild, they can shed their usual roles (the eldest daughter, middle son, the baby of the family, etc.) and enter other realms in which they are solitary actors. Without adults to guide them (or, contrarily, to restrict them), these young heroes are thrown back, time and time again, on their own resources. They must think, speak, act for themselves. They have no parental safety net below. This can be a frightening prospect, but it is also a liberating one — for although there’s no one to catch them if they fall, there’s no one to scold them for it either.

J.M. Barrie addresses this theme, of course, in his much-loved children’s fantasy Peter Pan — which draws upon Scottish changeling legends, twisted into interesting new shapes. Barrie’s Peter is human-born, not a faery, but he’s lived in Never Land so long that he’s as much a faery as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral. He’s a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them — both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. This dual nature makes Peter Pan a classic trickster character, kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of faery lore: both faery and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter’s last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy. Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he’s quick to anger if he’s disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs — but these “Lost Boys” are a wilder crew than Peter’s, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or “panic”). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god — and here the comparison must end, for Peter’s wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it’s sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he’s specifically determined to avoid. (“You mustn’t touch me. No one must ever touch me,” Peter tells Wendy.)

Although Peter Pan makes a brief appearance in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, his story as we know it now really began as a children’s play, which debuted on the London stage in 1904. The playscript was subsequently published under the title Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story in the book Peter and Wendy. (It’s a wonderful read in Barrie’s original text, full of sharp black humor.) Peter and Wendy ends with a poignant scene that does not exist in the play: Peter comes back to Wendy’s window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy’s own daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she’s off to Never Land herself…where Wendy can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

The fairy tale forest, like Never Land, is not a place we are meant to remain, lest, like Peter or the children stolen by faeries, we become something not quite human. Young heroes return triumphant from the woods (trials completed, curses broken, siblings saved, pockets stuffed with treasure), but the blunt fact is that they must return. In the old tales, there is no sadness in this, no lingering, backward glance to the forest; the stories end “happily ever after” with the children restored to the human world. In this sense, the wild depths of the wood represent the realm of childhood itself, and the final destination is an adulthood rich in love, prosperity, and joy.  From Victorian times onward, however, a new note of regret creeps in at the end of the story. A theme that we find over and over again in Victorian fantasy literature is that magic and wonder are accessible only to children, lost on the threshold of adulthood. From Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, these writers grieved that their wise young heroes would one day grow up and leave the woods behind.

Of course, many of us never do leave the woods behind: we return through the pages of magical books and we return in actuality, treasuring our interactions with the wild world through all the years of our lives. But that part of the forest specific to childhood does not truly belong to us now — and that’s exactly as it should be. Each generation bequeaths it to the next. Our job as adults, as I see it, is to protect that enchanted place by  preserving wilderness and stories both. Our job is to open the window at night and to watch from the shadows as Peter arrives; it’s our children’s turn to step over the sill. Our job is to teach them to navigate by the stars and to bless them on their way.

Barrie was wrong, by the way, for we adults have our owns forms of magic too, and the wild wood still welcomes us. But it’s right, I think, that there should be a corner of it forever marked “Grown-ups, keep out!” Where children are heroes of their own stories, kings and queens of their own wild worlds.


Child Abandonment / An Asperger Experience

I find the subject of abandonment to be an unrecognized and serious consequence of being diagnosed / labeled Autistic or Asperger’s. To live in a household, as a member of a human community, and to be singled out as a mistake, by one’s own kind, out of the millions of diverse and exotic life forms that evolution has produced – How is this not abandonment? 

Some children are literally abandoned; for others it’s a mysterious social-emotional estrangement that no one ever talks about. A “wall” that is indescribable; suffocating, and overwhelming; a dark anxiety that threatens the very biological expectation of every helpless newborn to be loved. Love is survival; acceptance is love.


Child Abandonment Stories in Folklore and Fairy Tales


by Austin Hackney

The Contemporary Relevance of Folkloric Traditions

I’d like to write about child abandonment stories. It’s something that’s been on my mind recently. Partly for personal reasons I won’t go into here, and partly reflecting on the fate of thousands of solitary refugee children who find themselves separated from their families; alone and abandoned in lands to them as foreign, alien and threatening as any dark forest in a fairy tale.

In contemporary folkloric literature and analyses of fairy tales a great deal is often written about images of abuse, incest, mutilation and other darker aspects which we find as common themes in such contexts. Not so much is written about the theme of child abandonment.

However, I do think it’s one worth examining. It has a rather stark and contemporary relevance. It’s certainly a theme which touches all our of lives at some point. In childhood, in intimate relationships, in bereavement, a sense of being abandoned, however temporarily, is something we all know. Little wonder, then, that it plays such a large part in many fairy tales, mythologies, and folkloric traditions.

Child Abandonment Stories Around the World

Child abandonment stories appear in many different forms in folklore, legends, and tales all over the globe. Perhaps the most commonly known manifestation of this motif, at least in the European West, is that of the abandonment of children by their parents.

One may think of Hansel and Gretel, whose parents abandon them in the dark forest because they can no longer afford to clothe and feed them. It would be possible to make any number of symbolic interpretations, of course, but there’s little doubt in my mind the root of such tales is embedded deeply in historical facts.

In other stories there are darker suggestions yet. Children are abandoned because they are born as a consequence of an incestuous union, or they have themselves been used in such fashion.

In some tales we find the child is cursed, marked, or in some other way ill-omened. In the Celtic fairy traditions children who are considered to have been parented by supernatural beings, the devil; or to be changelings swapped by the fairy folk; or prophesied to destroy one or other of the parents, are frequently abandoned even as newborn babies.

Again, this practice most likely finds its origin in history rather than fantasy. Many contemporary and near-contemporary anthropological studies show how religious or folk beliefs, and more often economic and social pressures, lead to situations in which children may either not be supported, or for other reasons cannot be accepted by their social group, are abandoned or even slain.

In many primary, patriarchal societies where males are highly valued, a female child may risk being “exposed” in the wild and left to die. This is commonly the case in cultures with a dowry system in which the parents simply cannot afford to “marry off” a daughter.

The Fairy Tale Perspective

In these historical and contemporary social contexts the likelihood of survival for these children is, of course, very low. It’s intended they should die. In folklore, as in fairy tale, things turn out very differently.

Most fairy tale children will survive. Most will overcome their abandonment, achieving personal transformation and success or, ultimately, reunion and reintegration with parents and society as powerful and independent adults. (Not a likely outcome for ASD, Asperger children) 

In this respect it may not be wholly fantastical to speculate that aspects of abandonment stories may incorporate elements of ritual initiation into adulthood; whereby the child is ritually abandoned or slain, in order to return or be reborn as an adult.

Adoption by Animal Guardians

Frequently in the folkloric child abandonment stories, the abandoned child or children is or are adopted by animal guardians. They may also fall into the hands of friendly or wicked witches, childless peasants or other guides and carers. (Asperger children often seek these mentors on their own) In some circumstances they find themselves adopted into royal households. One need only think of Moses, abandoned in his wicker basket and adopted by the pharaoh himself. Or, in Greek legend, Oedipus (whose name, interestingly, refers to the binding of his feet when he was abandoned in the mountains). Turning to the North European tradition, the tales of Havelock the Dane who was unjustly displaced from his royal heritage as a child. Of course, such children live and grow not only to survive but typically, against all striving of the antagonists, to overcome their fate, or fulfill prophecy, or achieve the endowment of supernatural powers.

The Inuit tales are particularly interesting in this regard. Frequently, children abandoned in their story lines not only become great hunters or warriors, but return triumphantly from their exile and use their new skills to feed or protect those who rejected them. There’s also a minor tradition in some Native American folklore in which abandoned children return and use their power to avenge themselves, often by the murder of their parents or elders.

It is not, however, only the young who are at risk of abandonment.

Abandonment of the Elders

Exposure of the elderly and infirm has also proved common among nomadic peoples. When a person is no longer seen as viable (think of our own term invalid, meaning no longer valid); no longer able to make a supportive contribution to the group as a whole, and merely a drain on the resources of others, she is frequently abandoned in the wild to meet her last days, usually dying of cold or starvation. (Much more common in the U.S. than Americans will admit; substandard nursing homes and shelters serve as “the wild” today) 

It would be a mistake to associate this custom exclusively with nomadic tribal peoples of ancient times. It was common enough among the white European invaders of Turtle Island (now more popularly known as North America). The settlers driving West in their pioneer wagons left thousands of old people to die on the plains, in the mountains, and in the deserts along the way.

In a certain sense, and it’s a very real one, we continue this practice today in modern Britain. I’m not thinking only of the increasing numbers of elderly homeless persons we see begging on the streets. I’m also thinking of the literally millions of our Elders effectively abandoned in impersonal institutions whose primary motive is the profit margin, and whose appalling standards of care have been the subject of recent government inquiry. This is in stark contrast to my experience in my adopted home land of Italy, where it is fully expected that the family will rally together to care for the Elders, who play a full part in the family home until they breathe their last.

Abandonment of the Spouse

Another aspect of this motif, perhaps best exemplified in the Eurasian folktales of the “handless maiden”, is the abandonment of the wife. The cutting off of the hands by the husband before expulsion from the home is no mere invention of the dark folkloric imagination. Actual mutilation of this type was a common punishment in times gone by, intended to disable the rejected person from feeding and fending for themselves. There are still countries today, Saudi Arabia springs to mind, in which various forms of mutilation, including cutting off hands, remain as punishments enshrined in law for female adulterers and the victims of rape.

Not all instances of abandonment in folklore and fairy tales are directly linked to such dark origins. Sometimes it’s simply a storytelling device which enables the heroine or hero to be liberated from the constraints of domesticity, and to participate fully in the adventure which will transform their lives.

Child Abandonment in Contemporary Children’s Literature

This more positive use of child abandonment stories is commonly reflected in adventure and fantasy stories of our own time written for children and teenagers. The protagonists in such tales are frequently abandoned, either through mischance, bereavement, or just for the holidays, so they can be the prime movers in their own stories without the guidance and restriction of parental authority. (An Asperger child may choose this path of development, upon recognizing the futility of relying on parents or authority figures for aid.)  

While written in the steampunk genre, my own recently published novel, Beyond the Starline, uses this time-honored technique to pitch the protagonist forward into adventure. It also relies heavily on imagery drawn from folklore – the maiden in the tower, the animal guide, the girl disguised as a boy, and so on. It also deals with the attempt to reconcile the desire for belonging with the desire for freedom, (a perpetual Asperger dilemma) and explores the childhood experience of abandonment by parents and society. In that sense I consider it a fairy tale, even though its setting and technologies are “retrofuturistic.”

In any case, whether in terms of giving us an insight into the past, a lens through which to examine and critique our own society, or as inspiration for new forms of storytelling, the ancient motifs of folklore and fairy story continue to exercise their power in profoundly relevant and contemporary ways. If we abandon them, then we abandon ourselves.


Homo erectus in Middle East / Emergence of “Fat Hunters”

New ideas on Homo erectus and an evolutionary shift to “a new hominin lineage” in the Middle East. 

Go to original paper for details and much more…

See also an interesting commentary on H. erectus by John Hawks




Man the Fat Hunter: The Demise of Homo erectus and the Emergence of a New Hominin Lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Levant

  • Miki Ben-Dor, Avi Gopher, Israel Hershkovitz, Ran Barkai
  • Published: December 9, 2011


It is our contention that two distinct elements combined in the Levant to propel the evolutionary process of replacing H. erectus by a new hominin lineage ([1], As the classification of varieties of the genus Homo is problematic, we refrain in this paper from any taxonomic designations that would indicate species or subspecies affiliation for the hominins of Qesem Cave. (Thank-you!) 

The Qesem Cave hominin, based on the analysis of teeth shares dental characteristics with the Skhul/Qafzeh Middle Paleolithic populations and to some extent also with Neandertals). One was the disappearance of the elephant (Elephas antiquus) – an ideal food-package in terms of fat and protein content throughout the year – which was until then a main calorie contributor to the diet of the H. erectus in the Levant. The second was the continuous necessity of H. erectus to consume animal fat as part of their diet, especially when taking into account their large brains [2]. The need to consume animal fat is the result of the physiological ceiling on the consumption of protein and plant foods. The obligatory nature of animal fat consumption turned the alleged large prey preference [3], [4] of H. erectus into a large prey dependence. Daily energy expenditure (DEE) of the hominins would have increased when very large animals such as the elephant had diminished and a larger number of smaller, faster animals had to be captured to provide the same amount of calories and required fat. This fitness pressure would have been considerably more acute during the dry seasons that prevail in the Levant. Such an eventuality, we suggest, led to the evolution of a better equipped species, in comparison with H. erectus, that also had a lighter body [5], a greater lower limb to weight ratio ([6]:194), and improved levels of knowledge, skill, and coordination ([7]:63) allowing it to better handle the hunting of an increased number of smaller animals and most probably also develop a new supporting social organization. (Chicken or egg? Did the environmental change “promote” a newer, leaner, more coordinated version of Homo erectus, or did a “new hominin” move in from elsewhere?)

We also suggest that this evolutionary process was related to the appearance of a new and innovative local cultural complex – the Levantine Acheulo-Yabrudian [8], [9]. Moreover, a recent study of dental remains from the Acheulo-Yabrudian site of Qesem Cave in Israel dated to 400-200 kyr ago [10], [11] has indicated that the hominins inhabiting the cave were not H. erectus but were rather most similar to later populations (e.g., Skhul/Qafzeh) of this region ([1] and references therein).

The Broader Context

Our direct ancestor, H. erectus, was equipped with a thick and large skull, a large brain (900 cc on average), impressive brow ridges and a strong and heavy body, heavier than that of its H. sapiens successor (e.g., [12], [13], [14]). Inhabiting the old world for some 1.5 million years, H. erectus is commonly associated with the Acheulian cultural complex, which is characterized by the production of large flakes and handaxes – large tools shaped by bifacial flaking. Handaxes are interpreted as tools associated with the butchering of large game (e.g., [15], [16]). H. erectus was also suggested in recent years to have used fire [17], [18]; however the supporting evidence is inconclusive. Albeit the positive archaeological evidence from the site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (henceforth GBY) dated to around 780 kyr [19], [20], [21], the habitual use of fire became widely spread only after 400 kyr [22], [23], [24], [25].

Archaeological evidence seems to associate H. erectus with large and medium-sized game {Namely, Body Size Group A (BSGA Elephant, >1000 kg), BSGB (Hippopotamus, rhinoceros approx. 1000 kg), and BSGC (Giant deer, red deer, boar, bovine, 80–250 kg); (after [26])}, most conspicuously elephants, whose remains are commonly found at Acheulian sites throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe (e.g., [26], [27], [28], [29], [30]). In some instances elephant bones and tusks were also transformed into shaped tools, specifically artifacts reminiscent of the characteristic Acheulian stone handaxes [31].

In Africa, H. sapiens appears around 200 kyr ago, most probably replacing H. erectus and/or H. heidelbergensis [32], [33], [34]. Early African H. sapiens used both handaxes and the sophisticated tool-manufacturing technologies known as the Levallois technique (e.g., [35], [36]) while its sites are devoid of elephants [32], [35]. The presence of elephants in many Acheulian African sites and their absence from later Middle Stone Age sites [29], [37], evoked an overkill hypothesis ([38]:382), which was never convincingly demonstrated. Thus no link was proposed, in the case of Africa, between human evolution and the exclusion of elephants from the human diet, and no evolutionary reasoning was offered for the emergence of H. sapiens in Africa [39].

In Europe, H. erectus was replaced by H. heidelbergensis [40] and later by hominins associated with the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage [41]. In spite of significant cultural changes, such as the adoption of the Levallois technique and the common use of fire, the manufacture and use of handaxes and the association with large game persisted in post-erectus Europe until the demise of the Neandertals, around 30 kyr BP (e.g., [42]). H. sapiens did not evolve in Europe but migrated to it no earlier than 40 kyr BP (e.g., [43]).

In the Levant, dental remains from the Acheulo-Yabrudian site of Qesem Cave, Israel [10], [11] demonstrate resemblance to dental records of later, Middle Paleolithic populations in the region [1] indicating that H. erectus was replaced some 400 kyr ago by a new hominin ancestral to later populations in the Levant. A rich and well-dated (400-200 kyr) archaeological dataset known from the Levant offers a glimpse into this significant process and a better understanding of the circumstances leading to the later emergence of modern humans thus suggesting a possible link between the cultural and biological processes. This dataset pertains to the unique local cultural complex known as the Acheulo-Yabrudian, a diversified and innovative cultural complex (e.g., [8], [44], [45]), which appeared some 400 kyr ago, immediately following the Acheulian cultural complex [10], [11], and which lasted some 200 kyr. Acheulo-Yabrudian sites as well as sites associated with subsequent cultures in the Levant show no elephant remains in their faunal assemblages.


For more than two decades a view dominated anthropological discussions that all modern human variation derived from Africa within a relatively recent chronological framework. Recent years challenged this paradigm with new discoveries from Europe, China, and other localities, as well as by new advances in theory and methodology. These developments are now setting the stage for a new understanding of the human story in general and the emergence of modern humans in particular (e.g., [1], [39], [132], [133], [134], [135], [136], [137], [138], [139], [140], [141], [142], [143], [144], [145], [146]). In this respect, the Qesem hominins may play an important role. Analysis of their dental remains [1] suggests a much deeper time frame between at least some of the ancestral populations and modern humans than that which is assumed by the “Out of Africa” model. This, combined with previous genetic studies (e.g., [147], [148], [149], [150]), lends support to the notion of assimilation (e.g., [144]) between populations migrating “out of Africa” and populations already established in these parts of Eurasia.

It is still premature to indicate whether the Qesem hominin ancestors evolved in Africa prior to 400 kyr [136], developed blade technologies [151], [152], and then migrated to the Levant to establish the new and unique Acheulo-Yabrudian cultural complex; or whether (as may be derived from our model) we face a local, Levantine emergence of a new hominin lineage. (If it’s local, from which species did the “new hominin” evolve? Is this the putative location where H. erectus “became” H. sapiens?) The plethora of hominins in the Levantine Middle Paleolithic fossil record (Qafzeh, Skhul, Zuttiyeh, Tabun) and the fact that the Acheulo-Yabrudian cultural complex has no counterparts in Africa may hint in favor of local cultural and biological developments. This notion gains indirect support from the Denisova finds that raise the possibility that several different hominin groups spread out across Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years, probably contributing to the emergence of modern human populations [153], [154], [155].

It should not come as a surprise that H. erectus, and its successors managed, and in fact evolved, to obtain a substantial amount of the densest form of nutritional energy available in nature – fat – to the point that it became an obligatory food source. Animal fat was an essential food source necessary in order to meet the daily energy expenditure of these Pleistocene hominins, especially taking into account their large energy-demanding brains. It should also not come as a surprise that for a predator, the disappearance of a major prey animal may be a significant reason for evolutionary change. The elephant was a uniquely large and fat-rich food-package and therefore a most attractive target during the Levantine Lower Palaeolithic Acheulian. Our calculations show that the elephant’s disappearance from the Levant just before 400 kyr was significant enough an event to have triggered the evolution of a species that was more adept, both physically and mentally, to obtain dense energy (such as fat) from a higher number of smaller, more evasive animals. The concomitant emergence of a new and innovative cultural complex – the Acheulo-Yabrudian, heralds a new set of behavioral habits including changes in hunting and sharing practices [9], [23], [45] that are relevant to our model.

Thus, the particular dietary developments and cultural innovations joined together at the end of the Lower Paleolithic period in the Levant, reflecting a link between human biological and cultural/behavioral evolution. If indeed, as we tried to show, the dependence of humans on fat was so fundamental to their existence, the application is made possible, perhaps after some refinement, of this proposed bioenergetic model to the understanding of other important developments in human evolutionary history.


Asperger Types have no emotions? / How we “feel” the pain… warning

Warning… very graphic. This is the “animal” analogy to the PREDATORY SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT we are forced to live in. 


This is true for ALL Modern Humans, but unlike animals, human beings are “kept alive” to serve the economic system. This “trapper” could be a corporation, a member of Congress, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a bureaucrat, a credit card company, a debt collector, the Justice System, the prison system, the Tech Industry, the “helping, caring, fixing” industry, Big Pharma …. the Healthcare Industry, the Mortgage Industry, the Insurance Industry, the Education Industry, the Student Loan Industry, and of course, myriad government programs and agencies. The Advertising and Marketing Industry, the Food Industry, BANKS… and on and on. 

There are more PREDATORS than prey at this point…


Confrontational scavenging of large vertebrate carcasses / Early Homo

Freshly scavenged elk carcass


Humans and Scavengers: The Evolution of Interactions and Ecosystem Services


BioScience, Volume 64, Issue 5, 1 May 2014, Pages 394–403, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu034
Published: 22 March 2014

Excerpt: Diet of early humans: Food provisioning and the onset of cultural services

Around the time of the Pliocene–Pleistocene transition, increasing seasonality in precipitation occurred in African savannas (Cerling et al. 2011a). This forced the australopithecine ancestors of humans to diversify their diet in order to cope with the developing seasonal bottleneck in fruits and other soft plant foods. While hominins of the genus Paranthropus became adapted to exploit durable seeds, roots, and sedges (Cerling et al. 2011b, Klein 2013, Sponheimer et al. 2013), the lineage leading to Homo turned to the meat provided by large vertebrate carcasses to overcome the effects of the increasingly seasonal production of fruits and new plant growth (Foley and Lee 1989, Bunn and Ezzo 1993, Ungar et al. 2006, Klein 2013). Although the relative role of hunting and scavenging by early humans remains controversial (Domínguez-Rodrigo 2002, Ungar et al. 2006, Pickering 2013), many anthropologists contend that the earliest humans obtained animal food largely through confrontational scavenging (also called power scavenging and aggressive scavenging) by driving large carnivores from their kills (figure 1; O’Connell et al. 1988, Bunn and Ezzo 1993, Brantingham 1998, Ragir 2000, Domínguez-Rodrigo and Pickering 2003, Klein 2009, Bickerton and Szathmáry 2011). Indeed, it has been proposed that the emergence of endurance running could have helped early humans to secure sufficient access to the scattered and ephemeral resource that is carrion, although this might have been a later feature facilitating the hunting of live ungulate prey (Bramble and Lieberman 2011).

Figure 1.

Major meat acquisition strategies of humans (Homo spp.) in relation to key events during the Quaternary Period. (a) A logarithmic time scale (in thousands of years ago) showing the main human-related events that occurred during the Quaternary Period that shaped the interactions between humans and scavenging vertebrates. (b) The major means of meat acquisition by humans during the Quaternary Period. See the text for further details.

Major meat acquisition strategies of humans (Homo spp.) in relation to key events during the Quaternary Period. (a) A logarithmic time scale (in thousands of years ago) showing the main human-related events that occurred during the Quaternary Period that shaped the interactions between humans and scavenging vertebrates. (b) The major means of meat acquisition by humans during the Quaternary Period. See the text for further details.

Interference and resource competition probably accounted for most of the interactions among the earliest humans, vultures, bone-cracking hyenids, and other vertebrate scavengers (Bunn and Ezzo 1993, Owen-Smith 1999, Bickerton and Szathmáry 2011, Bramble and Lieberman 2011). In addition, confrontational scavenging would have exposed early humans to increased risks of injury or death while they were driving away the large carnivores that had killed the carcasses or driving away other fearsome scavengers present at them (Bunn and Ezzo 1993, Bickerton and Szathmáry 2011). But facilitatory interactions could also have been a feature, as it happens in current vertebrate scavenger guilds (Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2012, Pereira et al. 2014). For instance, observations of contemporary hunter–gatherers who actively exploit scavenging opportunities suggest that watching the behavior of vultures and large mammalian carnivores could have helped early humans locate carcasses (O’Connell et al. 1988). Such food provisioning probably represents the first ecosystem service that humans gained from scavenging vertebrates.

Moreover, a major function of the earliest stone tools crafted by early hominins was the processing of large carcasses to yield meat and marrow, a pattern of butchery that extended well into the Pleistocene (de Heinzelin et al. 1999). Competition with other scavengers probably contributed to the refinement of these tools and their use and, therefore, to cultural diversity. In addition, selective pressures associated with confrontational scavenging—specifically, the spatiotemporal unpredictability of carcasses and exposure to predation—probably contributed to the most distinctive features of humans: collaborative cooperation and language development (both of which were used to express where the resource was imagined to be awaiting; Bickerton and Szathmáry 2011). In turn, the improved diet quality due to increasing meat consumption has been related, along with other factors, to the extraordinary brain enlargement within the human lineage (Bramble and Lieberman 2011, Navarrete et al. 2011). Therefore, (confrontational) scavenging helped shape our modern cognitive identity.


Amensalism: any interaction between two individuals or groups of the same or different species in which one organism or group is harmed but the other is unaffected.

Carrion: any type of dead animal tissue.

Coevolution: reciprocal selective pressure that makes the evolution of one taxon partially dependent on the evolution of another (Brantingham 1998).

Commensalism: any interaction between two individuals or groups of the same or different species in which one organism or group benefits without affecting the other.

Competition: any interaction between two individuals or groups of the same or different species that reduces access to a shared resource or set of resources. Competition is direct (interference) if one organism or group affects the ability of another to consume a given limiting resource or indirect (exploitation) if the consumption of a given limiting resource by one organism or group makes the resource unavailable for another.

Ecosystem services: benefits people obtain from ecosystems (MA 2005) or the set of ecosystem functions that are useful to humans (Kremen 2005). These include provisioning (products obtained from ecosystems), regulating (related to the regulation of ecosystem processes), and cultural (nonmaterial benefits) services that directly affect people, as well as the supporting services needed to maintain other services. Provisioning, regulating, and cultural services typically have relatively direct and short-term impacts on people, whereas the impact of supporting services is often indirect or occurs over a very long time period (MA 2005).

Facilitative processes: those processes whose effects on a given organism are beneficial and increase its development or fitness.

Facultative scavenger: an animal that scavenges at variable rates but that can subsist on other food resources in the absence of carrion. All mammalian predators (e.g., jackals, hyenas, and lions in Africa and southern Asia; foxes, raccoons, wolves, and bears in temperate ecosystems), numerous birds of prey (e.g., kites, most large eagles), and corvids (e.g., ravens, crows), as well as other vertebrates (e.g., crocodiles), can be considered, to a greater or lesser extent, facultative scavengers (DeVault et al. 2003, Pereira et al. 2014).

Mutualism: any beneficial and reciprocal interaction between two individuals or groups of different species. This relationship of mutual dependence can be obligate (when a given organism or group cannot survive or reproduce without its mutualistic partner).

Obligate scavenger: a scavenger that relies entirely or near entirely on carrion as food resource. Among Quaternary terrestrial vertebrates, only vultures (both Old and New World species—families Accipitridae and Cathartidae, respectively) are considered obligate scavengers.

Predation: an interaction in which one animal kills and eats all or part of another. Predation can affect prey through the two fundamental mechanisms of direct consumption and capture risk.

Scavenging: an interaction in which one animal eats all or part of a dead animal. Scavenging is active (also called confrontational, aggressive, or power scavenging) when the predator that was responsible for the kill is chased away and most of the meat on the carcass is procured, or it is passive when the bones, which may contain fragments of meat, marrow, and skull contents, are collected.

Much, much, more…

Wounded Knee 1973 / America the Brutal…

From PBS: The Federal war against the First Nations. The U.S. is a society without mercy or conscience.  

From: Embraced by the Light 


On Pine Ridge, 63% of the population lives below the poverty line, that’s 2 out 3 people. (USDA)

Average annual family income, not individual, is $3,700 per year (U.S. Census Bureau)

There is an unemployment rate of approximately 85% (U.S. Census Bureau)

Infant mortality rate 300% higher than the U.S. national average (United Nations and Peoples Organization)

Diabetes and Tuberculosis rates 300% higher than the U.S. national average; Fifty percent of adults over age 40 living on Pine Ridge have diabetes. (Indian Health Services)

One-third of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, adequate insulation, and sewage systems (Indian Housing Authority)

The High School drop-out rate is 70%, compared to a national average of 11% average (United Nations and Peoples Organization)

Schools on Pine Ridge are in the bottom 10 percent of school funding by the U.S. Department of Education (Bureau of Indian Affairs)

Recent reports state the average life expectancy is 48 years old for men and 52 years old for women, the shortest for any community in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti (AIRC)

There is an estimated average of 12 people living in each family home; a house with only two to three rooms (National American Indian Housing Council)

The teenage suicide rate on Pine Ridge is 150 percent higher than the national average (Dakota-Lakota-Nakota). Alcoholism affects 8 out of 10 families on the Reservation, while the death rate from alcoholism is 9 times the national average (Dakota-Lakota-Nakota)

Pine Ridge is not the only American Indian reservation in the United States, suffering from this extreme poverty, poor health care and inadequate educational system, but it is the worst. We have no magical cure for these deeply burdening troubles, but we do feel that each and everyone of these individuals, especially the children and elderly, deserves the same access to food that the rest of our society is privileged to. We desire to provide access to this fundamental necessity, so as to allow these people to again become self-sufficient.

Morning thoughts on an Asperger problem


Being independent does not mean that I don’t want or need other people in my life, but most of the people who are available to us are social typical people. They know about needing and wanting other people. It’s a fact of life.

When they meet someone who is independent, they don’t know how to deal with that person. They may conclude that being independent means that we don’t want or need them. They take it personally; they are used to being needed. I think that it is incumbent on us to find a way to let that person know that we need other people in our lives.

I admit that I’m terrible at this. Being independent is so fundamental to my existence:  to my identity; to how I operate in the world. For me it equates with freedom. This is a mistake. I ought to be able to “be free” to think what I think; to say what I mean, to act on my principles and values and to take the consequences for that freedom as they come, but ought to, and “can do” are not the same.

Freedom is a buzzword in American democracy; not a fact of life. An abstract concept that in practice is available to few individuals. When brought down to specifics, it’s a subject that is under constant negotiation between individuals groups and the “state” – laws, traditions, customs, necessity and yes, the social hierarchy. In many cultures, religions and nations, it’s not even open to negotiation. It’s this “openness” to negotiation that is a source of political, cultural and social turmoil in our country – and a very serious problem inside the country today – and always has been. It is fundamental in our history.

I have obviously participated in these negotiations; accepted the benefits and taken considerable blows to my health and happiness by doing so. That is that: a condition of living that I fully accept.

But as an Asperger, I find that it’s the personal level of negotiations that is the most difficult. Social “needs and wants” are very different to what I want. One aspect of this is due to being female: an independent female is strange. Women are supposed to want people to “take care of them”. Men, for all the “trash talk” that goes around, take a great deal of pride and identity from taking care of women and children. And women, too, are often overloaded with the “cultural” message that “nurturing” is their task in the order of things. Their burden: selflessness. These two roles are natural, but can become obstacles in relationships. Who takes care of what, within family and society seams a simple question of negotiation – individual choices can be integrated into a practical solution.

Which person is good at task X? Enjoys task Y? Divide up the activity accordingly; share the remainder equitably.

I think that every Asperger realizes early on in childhood, that this is not how the social environment works. All kinds of other priorities exist: status, tradition, roles, interference by other people who think that they have the answers and the right, indeed even the authority to impose their ideas on others.

This is the point in analysis where my Asperger personality simply “looses it”. The social environment has been like this for thousands of years; a behemoth under no conscious control; a tangle of knots and threads beyond comprehension.

My answer to the frustration has been writing this blog, in the narrow quest of perhaps aiding other people like me in coping with the situation. I have learned much myself by jumping into the “problem” and untangling some of the bad ideas, prejudices and complicated “emotions” that drive the system. Old Aspergers can learn new tricks; new strategies, new personal revelations.

It’s funny, in a way, that the “problem” boils down to a simple question, How does an Asperger let other people know that we’re human, not just like them, and yet, very much like them?





What I’m reading today / Critique of theories of primitive religion

Theories of Primitive Religion 

PDF: https://monoskop.org/images/e/e1/Evans_Pritchard_E_E_Theories_of_Primitive_Religion_1965.pdf

BY E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Professor of Social Anthropology, The University of Oxford, / OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1965

Theories of primitive religion may conveniently be considered under the headings of psychological and sociological, the psychological being further divided into – and here I use Wilhelm Schmidt’s terms – intellectualist and emotionalist theories. This classification, which also accords roughly with historical succession, will serve its expository purpose, though some writers fall between these headings or come under more than one of them. My treatment of them may seem to you severe and negative. I think you will not regard my strictures as too severe when you see how inadequate, even ludicrous, is much of what has been written in explanation of religious phenomena. Laymen may not be aware that most of what has been written in the past, and with some assurance, and is still trotted out in colleges and universities, about animism, totemism, magic, &c., has been shown to be erroneous or at least dubious. My task has therefore to be critical rather than constructive, to show why theories at one time accepted are unsupportable and had, or have, to be rejected wholly or in part. If I can persuade you that much is still very uncertain and obscure, my labour will not have been in vain. You will then not be under any illusion that we have final answers to the questions posed.

May I suggest, that some clever anthropologist, take up the task of studying “Asperger People” in the way of Pritchard’s thinking; not from the pseudoscientific POV of Psychology, but as a complete system of human thought and culture.

Asperger types may find the NUER tribe (second half) of the video interesting.