Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks


You know how you go in search of one thing on the interwebs and sometimes stumble across something that makes you go


Last night I was searching YouTube for the scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar and Maurice discuss ape society and sticks

And besides coming across this adorable little vignette about three baby orangutans holding on to each other to help ward off curious macaques, I also came across a recent National Geographic special called Woman Raised By Monkeys. It follows Marina Chapman, a woman originally from Colombia who doesn't know her real name, her real age, or her family, because in the 1950's when she was five, she was abducted and left in the jungle.

And then it seems she was raised by capuchin monkeys for five years.

She doesn't know for certain — that's only her memory. What's clear is that during the 1950's when she was abducted, Colombia was experiencing immense political upheaval; some 4 million people were either displaced or disappeared, and children were especially vulnerable. Her recollection as a five-year-old is waking up slung over the shoulder of a man who abducted her when a branch from a jungle tree slapped her face. Then she was dumped and left.


She claims she soon came across a troop of capuchin monkeys, and supposedly stayed with them for the next five years before she was found by hunters. She says the monkeys were curious about her, rattled the branches, screeched and came down to check her out. So she just began to follow and copy them, drinking what they drank, eating the fruit they found, and cracking nuts like they did. At first, she says, the monkeys only tolerated her presence as she followed and copied them. But eventually they started to crawl up her shoulders and groom her, just like they groomed themselves.

Among New World monkeys, capuchins are the most social animals, so it's not out of the realm of possibility. There is even recent evidence of wild capuchins in Brazil taking a marmoset as a pet. Capuchins are not above hanging out with other primates.


It's of course very unlikely that a small child would be able to survive that long in the jungle, monkey family or not. However, there may be another possibility; she may have experienced a trauma so drastic that her brain snapped and replaced the memory of the trauma with the memory of being raised by monkeys during that five-year period when she was a child.


The story as presented by National Geographic is fascinating. They bring in psychologists, biologists, primatologists, and explore many angles:

  • Is she susceptible to more false-memory creation than the general populace? A little.
  • If she did survive in the jungle that long, her bones would show Harris lines marking points of malnutrition — and they do, two clear Harris lines that show malnutrition around age six and ten, right around the time she was missing. (Which doesn't necessarily mean she was living with monkeys in the jungle, only that she was malnourished.)
  • Does she have any specialized knowledge about capuchins? She claims she only knew she stayed with monkeys and could describe them, but didn't know the species. What she describes turns out to be white-fronted capuchins, so she's sent out into the jungle with a primatologist who specializes in capuchins to see what she knows about them. The primatologist, Dr. Thomas Defler, was familiar with Marina's claims and was skeptical. However, on their excursion, Marina presented very detailed knowledge of capuchin behavior that Dr. Defler says wasn't observed and reported until this past decade. According to Dr. Defler, she would have had to have spent years in the field observing capuchin behavior in order to demonstrate the detailed knowledge she did with him. So unless she was somehow following that very specialized field of primatology very closely — which isn't impossible, although she's barely literate — she seems to have knowledge of capuchin behavior that only a few other experts have gained through years of field work. Dr. Defler ends up admitting that it seems she at least "spent quite a lot of time with capuchins."

Her story gets more twisted when, after about five years in the jungle, she is discovered by hunters who take her to Cucuta, Colombia. But instead of helping her, they sold her to a brothel in the town as a slave. She didn't know how to behave among people, was beaten by the woman she was sold to for stealing food and not behaving normally, and most likely would have been made into a sex slave when she got older. Terrified, she managed to run away and lived on the street for a while, attributing her survival skills to what she learned from the monkeys. This much the show is able to verify by going back to the Cucuta finding the brothel, and getting testimony from others who knew of the woman who enslaved Marina.

She was eventually adopted by a Colombian family who helped her and gave her a good home. In the 1970's she emigrated to England with some of her new relatives and eventually married a scientist from England. Now in her 70's, she's still very close with her adoptive family. One of the more charming anecdotes from her daughter is how Marina would make them a treat, but if the children wanted it, they had to go to her feet and make little chirping monkey noises, similar to how young capuchins approach their mothers for food. Then she would give her children the treat.


That brings us to the last test she is given, a neurological assessment of her unconscious reactions when viewing a series of images — neutral images, images of her adoptive family, and images of monkeys, including images of white-fronted capuchins. The sensors linked to her head and body measured her unconscious nervous system reactions when viewing the images; if she didn't show any significant reactions when viewing images of white-fronted capuchins, "that would suggest fraud." However, when she looked at images of white-fronted capuchin monkeys, her unconscious nervous system response was nearly identical to the response she had when she looked at images of her adoptive family. That still doesn't necessarily mean she was raised by capuchins, only that the belief is so strong in her that it triggers particularly strong unconscious responses that match what she feels when she thinks of the family that adopted her off the streets. However, that does suggest a strong bond that was most likely developed through a sustained and profound interaction. In Marina's mind, "white-fronted capuchins" and "family" are the same.

In either case, this is either a remarkable psychological story of trauma and false memory creation, or a remarkable story of primate society and interspecies interaction. And if you want to see it, you can try YouTube. Marina has also published a book with the help of her daughter who appears in the documentary, The Girl With No Name.


(Here are the adorable orangutans huddling together to ward off the scary macaque)

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