PHNOM PENH, Cambodia –
A Spanish psychologist met with Cambodia's "jungle woman" on Tuesday, hoping to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the woman who emerged from the forest, naked and unable to speak, from what may have been nearly two decades in the wild.
But it is also possible he may find clues to the woman's true identity — whether she is indeed a local girl who disappeared in 1988, as claimed by the family in northeastern Cambodia who has taken her in as their long lost daughter.
• Click here for more photos of Cambodia's "jungle woman."
Rifa said he plans to spend several days at the home of village policeman Sal Lou, who claims the woman is his daughter Rochom P'ngieng, who disappeared while tending water buffalo when she was 8 years old.
"I can only tell you that I am [now] taking dinner with them, a nice family," he said by phone from Oyadao district of Rattanakiri province, stressing that he was there "to make an evaluation" of the woman.
Sal Lou's family, members of Cambodia's Pnong ethnic minority, say they are certain the woman is Rochom P'ngieng because of a childhood scar on her right arm.
With no other evidence supporting their claim, however, others have speculated that the woman may have a history of mental troubles and had simply become lost in the jungle much more recently.
In any case, her inability to communicate and evident attempts to escape from Sal Lou's family indicate she is in a difficult psychological situation.
Rifa has been working with indigenous people in Rattanakiri province over the past four years for the Spain-based group Psychology Without Borders.
In an interview earlier Tuesday, he told The Associated Press he thinks the woman's behavior showed she was having difficulty adapting to normal life, as would be expected if she had been lost in the jungle for an extended period of time.
"It is not extraordinary ... or anything coming from another world," he said, referring to concerns by superstitious villagers that the woman may be possessed by a jungle spirit.
Anyone returning from almost two decades away from normal society would certainly need time to readjust, he said.
On Monday, two Cambodian human rights groups expressed concern that the woman may be suffering due to the spotlight cast on her since she emerged from the wild, and offered to provide medical and psychiatric treatment.
Curious villagers and journalists have flocked to see the woman, who was found Jan. 13 walking bent over rather than upright. She pats her stomach when hungry and uses animal-like grunts to communicate.
"The important thing is to try to help the family, if they don't know how to manage [her]," Rifa said.
Mao San, the Oyadao district police chief, said Tuesday that the investigation into the woman's case has "hit a dead end" because she cannot communicate.
"Only when she starts speaking can we ask her where she might have been or whom she might have been with the whole time," he said, stressing the need to do DNA tests to confirm she is the child of Sal Lou.
Sal Lou has said he is willing to undergo DNA testing "to clear any doubts that she is my child."