The first time Marcos Rodríguez 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 Rodríguez 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. Rodríguez got out of bed and crept towards the device. When he got closer, he couldn’t see a door, a hatch, or even a small crack in the box’s surface. Nothing. The people were trapped.
Rodríguez had a plan. “Don’t worry, if you all move to one side, I’ll 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. Rodríguez dropped the radio on to the floor.
When he knelt down to search through the debris, the people weren’t there. He called for them, but they didn’t respond. He searched more frantically, but they still didn’t appear. “I’ve killed them!” Rodríguez bellowed, and ran to his bed, where he hid for the rest of the day.
Rodríguez 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, Rodríguez 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 you’re God,” he said. “They tell me you know everything.”
In the 50 years since he was found in the wilderness, Rodríguez has struggled to get a handle on society’s 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,” Rodríguez told me, “I had a very bad time among humans”.