Death As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal

Article | Issue: Mar 2024

Dip into the follow-up to the internationally acclaimed Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal, from Spanish duo JUAN JOSÉ MILLÁS & JUAN LUIS ARSUAGA which addresses topics such as death and eternity, longevity, disease, ageing, and natural selection.


OneThe immortals 


He was right: I didn’t like it.

Eternity went by the name of ‘naked mole-rat’, and what it was, in fact, was a kind of thin rodent, about a foot long, which lived in underground galleries and whose total absence of fur looked like the result of an aggressive bout of chemotherapy, though I soon learned that the animal was immune to cancer, along with all other illnesses. Its skin, which looked very delicate, went from the rosy pink of a newborn hamster to the dark brown of an acorn. It had two disproportionately large, moveable incisors – veritable shovels that took up half its face and gave it the look, if not of a total cretin, then at least of being a little slow on the uptake.

As we were saying, it moved about inside these underground galleries, arranged rather like the ones you find inside ants’ nests, and which we could see through a longitudinal slice in the earth with a transparent pane on one side (of acrylic or glass, I’m not sure), which in turn gave the habitat the air of a shop window with the animals nervously scurrying to and fro like creatures trying to find their place in the world. I noticed that they did have eyes, though they kept them closed. I asked if the eyes were vestigial, because I really like using that word. Vestigial. 

‘They can see, but living in the dark means they rely more on touch and smell,’ Arsuaga replied. 

The amazing part is that we, the visitors, should also find ourselves inside a narrow tunnel, a gloomy place with an uneven floor, like the one that was the object of our curiosity. The tunnel in question is in Faunia, the Madrid zoo, the part known as ‘Underground mysteries’, dedicated to the universe that exists below the earth. From the rats’ perspective, if they could see us – which maybe they could – our behaviour didn’t seem all that different from their behaviour, as human children were running and tripping along our dark gallery just like the rodents were in theirs. 

‘And you’re saying this creature is immortal?’ I asked Arsuaga. 

‘It’s the closest thing to immortality I can show you. Mice that live in people’s houses have a lifespan of three years. Naked mole-rats live to about 30, so 10 times longer, which is really something for a creature their size.’ 

‘And is there any relationship between longevity and size?’ 

‘Of course. A fly lives for 30 days, and an elephant can live to be 90.’

‘But that still isn’t immortal!’ I exclaimed, disappointed.

‘Imagine someone guaranteeing you’ll live for a thousand years, so 10 times longer than the rest of your species. Wouldn’t your fellow men consider you an immortal? Wouldn’t you feel a little bit immortal yourself?’

I thought about it: a thousand years, astonishing, that’s more than Methuselah, a Biblical legend. He had a point. 

‘And what state would I be in when I reached that age?’ I asked. 

‘Well, here’s the rub. This animal doesn’t suffer from old age, it never gets cancer or indeed any other kind of illness.’

‘It can only die in an accident?’ 

‘The truth is, if you remove all external causes of death, we could almost say that it is literally immortal.’

‘It is also exceptionally ugly, though,’ I pointed out. 

At that moment, a rat more elongated than the others, and with a kind of humpback, appeared in the gallery. 

‘Does that one have scoliosis?’ I asked. 

‘No, no, she’s the queen,’ laughed Agustín López, the park’s head of conservation and its biological director, who was accompanying us on our visit. ‘The hump is a bulge in the vertebrae, which expand and widen to allow the abdominal cavity to grow – that way, she can have more young.’

‘And do they reproduce as frequently as mice?’ I asked. 

‘They can have three substantial litters a year. The female has 12 teats.’ 

‘So you must be constantly having to get rid of their children,’ I deduced. ‘Or does being in captivity mean they’re less productive?’ 

‘Don’t say “captivity” – it’s a “controlled environment”.’ 

I thought about old people’s homes, where our senior citizens live in captivity, and I imagined a sign outside bearing that euphemism: controlled environment; but I said nothing. Instead I asked, ‘And what happens in controlled environments?’

‘They self-limit.’

‘How do they do that?’

‘By eating some of their young.’

‘Now for the best part,’ Arsuaga jumped in, maybe to make up for the poor impression I was starting to form of naked mole-rats. ‘They’re eusocial – the good of the group comes first.’

‘Like bees?’ I asked, surprised. 

‘Exactly. Bees and termites are the most eusocial creatures going. They have a caste system, with each individual assigned an activity. There’s a queen, there are sterile workers, and there are the reproductive males. The queen is the only female capable of reproducing.’ 

‘How does she stop the others doing it?’

‘These creatures,’ Agustín clarified, ‘roll around in their excrement and their urine so that they can recognise one another by smell. Well, it turns out that the queen gives off, with her urine, a hormone that inhibits the reproductive capacity of the rest of the colony. When the queen dies, there’s a fight to see who’s going to take her place.’ 

So we had found ourselves before a mammal with a similar social organisation – if not an identical one – to that of ants and bees. I was quite struck by this. Biology, I always thought, belonged to the literary genre of horror – just as theology, according to Borges, belonged to that of fantasy. Incidentally, when I thought of Borges, it brought to mind his short story ‘The Immortal’, and in turn I remembered the scene where the protagonist passes through an underground labyrinth, much like that of the naked mole-rats, but leading to the City of the Immortals, where he discovers that immortality is actually a punishment, given that death is what gives meaning to life. •


Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal by Juan José Millás Spain & Juan Luis Arsuaga

Juan José Millás is a bestselling and multi award–winning Spanish novelist and short-story writer, and an award-winning regular contributor to major Spanish newspapers. His narrative works have been translated into more than 20 languages, and include the novels From the Shadows and None Shall Sleep.

Juan Luis Arsuaga is a professor of paleontology at the Complutense University of Madrid and the director of the Human Evolution and Behaviour Institute. He is a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and of the Musée de l’Homme of Paris, a visiting professor at University College London, and a co-director of excavations at the Sierra de Atapuerca World Heritage site.

He is a regular contributor to Nature, Science, and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is the editor of the Journal of Human Evolution, and is a regular lecturer at the universities of London, Cambridge, Berkeley, New York, Tel Aviv, and Zurich, among others. The recipient of many national and international awards, he is the author of more than a dozen works.

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