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The gold digging 'ants'


Herodotus, The Histories 3.102-105

[3.102] Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians, when they go into the desert to collect this sand, take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle and a male on either side, in a leading rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has but just dropped her young; for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burthens very much better. 

[3.104] When the Indians therefore have thus equipped themselves they set off in quest of the gold, calculating the time so that they may be engaged in seizing it during the most sultry part of the day, when the ants hide themselves to escape the heat. The sun in those parts shines fiercest in the morning, not, as elsewhere, at noonday; the greatest heat is from the time when he has reached a certain height, until the hour at which the market closes. During this space he burns much more furiously than at midday in Greece, so that the men there are said at that time to drench themselves with water. At noon his heat is much the same in India as in other countries, after which, as the day declines, the warmth is only equal to that of the morning sun elsewhere. Towards evening the coolness increases, till about sunset it becomes very cold. 

[3.105] When the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill their bags with the sand, and ride away at their best speed: the ants, however, scenting them, as the Persians say, rush forth in pursuit. Now these animals are, they declare, so swift, that there is nothing in the world like them: if it were not, therefore, that the Indians get a start while the ants are mustering, not a single gold-gatherer could escape. During the flight the male camels, which are not so fleet as the females, grow tired, and begin to drag, first one, and then the other; but the females recollect the young which they have left behind, and never give way or flag. Such, according to the Persians, is the manner in which the Indians get the greater part of their gold; some is dug out of the earth, but of this the supply is more scanty.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
An Indian on the eastern Apadana stairs, Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
A man from Sindhu, carrying gold. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (more).

Himalayas offer clue to legend of gold digging 'ants'

by Marlise Simons, The New York Times, 25 November 1996

The fabulous tale of the giant 'ants' that dug up gold in a far-off El Dorado and enriched the Persian Empire has circulated for some 2,500 years. Historians have variously recorded it as fact, mocked it as extravagant and passed it along the ancient grapevine.
   It was popular in Athens and Rome, and Alexander the Great, on his way to India, is said to have known about the tale. Scholars and fortune hunters have tried to explain the enigma for centuries.
   Now a team of explorers says it has solved the puzzle. The explorers believe they have pinpointed the land of the legendary gold digging ants and the people who profited in one of the most inaccessible regions of the Himalayas along the upper Indus river.
   They say the outsize furry 'ants', first described by Herodotus in the fifth century BC, are in fact big marmots. These creatures -Herodotus calls them 'bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog'- are still throwing up gold bearing soil from deep underground as they dig their burrows. Most important, the explorers say they have found indigenous people on the same high plateau who say that for generations they have collected gold dust from the marmots' work.
   A marmot is a type of burrowing squirrel, thick bodied and with a bushy fur.
   'I think this confirms the legend that has fascinated so many people,' said Michel Peissel, a French ethnologist, who has returned from a monthlong journey in the Himalayas of northern Pakistan. 'I think it vindicates Herodotus, who has often been called a liar.'
   Other explorers have suggested that the furry 'ants' of antiquity were marmots, but until now there were no known reports of the site where indigenous people actually collected and sifted sand to get the marmots' gold.
   That place, Mr. Peissel said, is the Dansar plain, a high plateau overlooking the Indus River near the tense cease-fire line between India and Pakistan. It is an isolated region where the Indus comes roaring through deep gorges on its way south. On both sides of the river, Mr Peissel said, are small settlements of Minaro tribal people, an ancient remnant who have remained so isolated in the high valleys that they still preserve some stone age customs.
   Up in those barren highlands, Mr. Peissel said, he went first to study the Minaro 14 years ago on the Indian side of the border, traveling in disguise because the military zone was off-limits to outsiders.
   'That's where I first heard the startling news that the villagers used to collect the earth from the marmot burrows because it contained much gold dust,' said Mr. Peissel, who speaks Tibetan, like the Minaro.
   But the Dansar plain, where the old people used to get the gold dust, the locals said, was five miles away on the other side of the Indus, now the Pakistani side. It took 14 years for Mr. Peissel and a British photographer, Sebastian Guinness, to get permits to visit the Minaro on the Pakistani side, also a strategic zone.
   In Pakistan, he said, the Minaro villagers told the same stories. 'We went out to the Dansar plain, overlooking the Indus, at an altitude of some 10,000 feet,' he said. 'It was astonishing. There were the marmots and the burrow and the piles of sand they had thrown up.' Moreover, he said, a landslide had exposed the darker, gold bearing soil that was three feet below the surface. That was the same soil the marmots brought up from under the sand.
   Specialists have long argued about why Herodotus and other ancient writers described the furry gold digging creatures as ants. Herodotus wrote in his Histories that some were even kept at the palace of the Persian king, who ruled the region at the time.
   Mr. Peissel, author of a book called The Ants' Gold, says his favored explanation is that confusion set in because in Persian the word for marmot is equivalent to 'mountain ant.'
   Stephanie West, a Herodotus scholar at Oxford University in Britain, said that Herodotus was not known to speak Persian, although the Persians invaded Halicarnassus, the Greek city where he lived from around 480 BC.
   'He traveled to Egypt but not to India, Ms. West said. 'He could have got it wrong. His information came from talking to travelers and reading what was there to be read.'
   Ms. West disagreed with the view of some scholars that Herodotus, who wrote the first major prose work of that time, fabricated tall stories or set out to deceive readers.
   'He probably took the liberties a historical novelist takes, rather than writing strictly as a historian,' she said.
   'It's such a marvelous notion, but once you think of them as marmots, it's less bizarre,' she said. She said she was familiar with Mr. Peissel's research, adding, `I think he has made a substantial contribution to understanding that episode.'
   The marmots digging on the Dansar plain may or may not settle the issue, Mr. Peissel said he would prefer to test his findings with further studies.
   'Ideally we should make a full archaeological survey in the area,' he said. 'But it's right in the line of fire of both sides. There was gunfire when we were there. The locals tell us that the marmots are dwindling. The Indian soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.'

 
 
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