The long read: Abandoned as a child, Marcos Rodrguez Pantoja survived alone in the wild for 15 years. But living with people proved to be even more difficult
The first time Marcos Rodrguez Pantoja ever heard voices on the radio, he panicked. Fuck, he remembers thinking, those people have been inside there a long time! It was 1966, and Rodrguez woke from a nap to the sound of voices. There was nobody else in the room, but the sounds of a conversation were coming from a small wooden box. Rodrguez got out of bed and crept towards the device. When he got closer, he couldnt see a door, a hatch, or even a small crack in the boxs surface. Nothing. The people were trapped.
Rodrguez had a plan. Dont worry, if you all move to one side, Ill get you out of there, he yelled at the radio. He ran towards the wall at the other end of the room, the device in his hand. There, breathless and red in the face, he held it high above his head and brought it down hard against the brick wall, in one violent swing. The wood splintered, the speaker popped out of its casing, and the voices fell silent. Rodrguez dropped the radio on to the floor.
When he knelt down to search through the debris, the people werent there. He called for them, but they didnt respond. He searched more frantically, but they still didnt appear. Ive killed them! Rodrguez bellowed, and ran to his bed, where he hid for the rest of the day.
Rodrguez was in his early 20s. He did not have any learning disabilities. Indeed, there was nothing to suggest his intelligence was below average. But he was ignorant of the most basic technology because, between the ages of seven and 19, according to his own testimony, Rodrguez lived alone, far from civilisation, in the Sierra Morena, a deserted mountain range of jagged peaks that stretches across southern Spain.
His story is that he was abandoned as a child of seven, in 1953, and left to fend for himself. Alone in the wild, as he tells it, he was raised by wolves, who protected and sheltered him. With no one to talk to, he lost the use of language, and began to bark, chirp, screech and howl.
Twelve years later, police found him hiding in the mountains, wrapped in a deerskin and with long, matted hair. He tried to flee, but the officers caught him, tied his hands and brought him to the nearest village. Eventually a young priest brought him to the hospital ward of a convent in Madrid, where he stayed for a year and received a remedial education from the nuns.
It is almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to emerge into adulthood without any of the socialisation that the rest of us unconsciously absorb, via a million imperceptible cues and incidents, as children and teenagers. When he left the convent hospital, adjusting to life among humans brought with it a series of shocks. When he first went to the cinema to see a Western he ran out of the theatre because he was terrified of the cowboys galloping toward the camera. The first time he ate in a restaurant, he was surprised he had to pay for his food. One day he went into a church, where an acquaintance had told him God lived. He approached the priest at the altar. They tell me youre God, he said. They tell me you know everything.
In the 50 years since he was found in the wilderness, Rodrguez has struggled to get a handle on societys expectations. He lived in convents, abandoned buildings and hostels all over Spain. He worked odd jobs on construction sites, in bars, nightclubs and hotels; he was robbed and exploited: people took advantage of his unworldliness. Some people did try to help him, but most found him awkward and uncommunicative, and he was largely shunned by society. For most of my life, Rodrguez told me, I had a very bad time among humans.
Marcos Rodrguez still finds it hard to be human. He lives in Rante, a sleepy hamlet of 60 or so families in Galicia, in north-west Spain. He is retired, and spends his time walking in the countryside, at the bar where he likes to play the clown, a waitress told me or hunting wild boar with a friend. The rest of the time, he stays home, watching daytime TV for hours. Rodrguez moved here in the late 1990s, when he was taken in by a retired policeman, who brought him to Galicia and gave him a job doing farm work and a place to live. For the first time since he left the mountains, his life was quiet and peaceful. The people keep an eye out for me here, he told me. Theyre nice, better than those I met before.
I met Rodrguez in his cramped, cold living room. The walls were plastered with photographs, old magazine pages and calendars of naked women. Im too much of a human now, he said. Before, when I first started living among people, I didnt even have a bed I slept on piles of newspapers. The small, ordinary house was given to him six years ago by one of his friends in the village. There were dirty plates in the kitchen sink, a half-made bed, wooden cupboards, a desk and a TV.
Talking with Rodrguez is somewhat uncanny. Nothing about his appearance suggests an unusual past: he looks like a typical Spanish septuagenarian, thin, with salt-and-pepper hair and ruddy cheeks. A cigarette habitually protrudes from his thin lips. But within moments of meeting him, I could sense something different in his demeanour.
He found it difficult to look me in the eye, and stared intensely at the ground whenever he spoke. He would make a joke, and laugh at himself, only to lose his confidence almost immediately and retreat behind a sheepish, diffident grin. He was friendly and talkative, but he seemed overly conscious of my reaction to everything he said: if I looked confused, he was visibly discouraged; if I was enthusiastic, he was suddenly excited and energetic. He always seemed to be anticipating his interlocutors scorn.
In his company, you cannot help realising that our daily interactions are eased by a stream of invisible signals a kind of silent language we all understand, which you dont even notice until its absent. Marcos can first seem unknowable, and difficult to help, Xos Santos, one of his friends in the village, had told me. But once he gets to know you, and you him, he is a very loyal person.
Rodrguez drew a lighter towards his cigarette and struck. Im still amazed by these things, he chuckled, pointing at a large collection of lighters on a nearby shelf. If you only knew the lengths I went to to make fire back then. On the desk behind him is a pile of cuttings from Spanish newspapers, with headlines such as The Wolfman of the Sierra Morena and Living Among Wolves mementoes of a bewildering new period in his life.
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