H-ASIA: The Gold Digging Ants of Herodotus (fwd)

Frank Conlon conlon at u.washington.edu
Tue Nov 26 05:45:41 UTC 1996


At the suggestion of another list member, I reproduce below the H-ASIA
post from Nov. 25 regarding the ants (gold-digging) file.

The article as published in the New York Times is not quoted verbatim
owing to copy right considerations.  However since the basic argument
has been out since 1984, perhaps some of you may wish to consult the
published work and see what you make of it.  Keep an eye out for the other
wonders of the East.

Frank Conlon

                           November 25, 1996

New suggestions regarding the "gold digging ants" reported by Herodotus
From: Frank Conlon <conlon at u.washington.edu>

This morning's _New York Times_ contains an article  by Marlise Simons:
"Himalayas Offer Clue to Legend of Gold-Digging 'Ants'" which reports on
recent work by a French scholar, Michel Peissel in the Northern
Territories of Pakistan.

As many students of Indian history are aware, Herodotus, the 5th Century
B.C.E. writer included in his account of the wonders of India, reports of
"gold digging ants" who dug gold from the ground only to have it pilfered
by their human neighbors.  In modern times, this story (and others) have
been employed to emphasize the long standing tradition of a credulous
Western acceptance of the "wonders of India."  What could be more
far-fetched than "gold-mining ants?"

Michel Peissel and Sebastian Guiness, a British photographer, have visited
the Dansar Plateau on the Indus river, just northwest of the
India-Pakistan line of control.  Peissel reports that the "ants" of
Herodotus' account which were described as large and furry, bigger than a
fox yet not so large as a dog, were in fact large marmots, who still
burrow in the Dansar plateau's gold-bearing earth and throw up mounds of
rubble which do in fact contain gold dust in modest amounts.

Earlier scholars had made the suggestion that the furry ants were in fact
marmots, but Peissel and Guiness appear to be the first scholars to locate
a site where the process of human - marmot interaction occurs.

The Dansar Plateau is an isolated region adjacent to the Indus river where
that stream has cut a deep ravine.  On both sides of the river, a tribal
group, the Minaro, who speak a Tibetan language, live in small
settlements. Peisell says that he visited the area fourteen years ago, and
heard accounts of people collecting earth left by marmots, in order to
sift the soil for gold.  A landslide had exposed a darker gold-bearing
soil that was the same as that being brought up to the surface by the
marmot excavations.

The article goes on to say that the identification of the furry animals as
ants had been a puzzle, but that Peissel stated that the confusion arose
from the Persian world used for marmot which was equivalent to "mountain
ant," noting that Himalayan marmots are quite large, with sharp claws and
teeth with which they would defend their burrows against predators,
including gold-seeking humans.

Stephanie West, a scholar of Herodotus at Oxford, is quoted in the article
as saying that while Herodotus was not known to speak Persian, the Persian
army did invade Halicarnassus, the city where he lived from circa 480 BCE.

It is not entirely clear why this article appears now, other than Michel
Peissel reporting fresh discoveries.  Peissel has written a number of
books on the Tibetan Himalaya (see below) and published the propositions
contained in the _New York Times_ article in a book published some twelve
years ago.

Also, while the "gold-digging ants" may get displaced from our lectures on
the early West's interest in "fabulous India,"  I don't think Michel
Peissel has yet solved the matter of the "dog-headed people" and other
remarkable stories.  (On the latter, Wilhelm Halbfass, _India and Europe:
An Essay in Understanding_ (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988) p.11, notes that
some of the amazing creatures reported in the Classical accounts of India
have clearly identifiable counterparts in Indian mythology and literature,
citing some recent work of K. Kartunnen.)

Frank Conlon
University of Washington
conlon at u.washington.edu
Peissel, Michel, _L'Or des fourmis: la decouverte de l'Eldorado grec au
                Tibet_ (Paris: L. Laffont, 1984) 226 pp.
                ISBN:  222100986X.

Peissel, Michel, _The ants' gold: the discovery of the Greek El Dorado
                in the Himalayas  (London: Harvill Press, 1984) 180 p.
                ISBN: 0002725142 :
Other Peissel titles relating to the Himalayan region include:

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        Lords and lamas: a solitary expedition across the secret
              Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Pub. Info.:   London, Heinemann, 1970.
ISBN:         0434582301.

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        Cavaliers of Kham: the secret war in Tibet.
Pub. Info.:   London, Heinemann, 1972.
ISBN:         043458231X.

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        Mustang: a lost Tibetan kingdom
Pub. Info.:   Delhi: Book Faith India, 1992 1967
Notes:        Originally published: Mustang, the forbidden kingdom. New
                York : Dutton, 1967.
ISBN:         8173030022

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        La route de l'Ambre : de la Baltique a la mer Noire dans
                le sillage des Vikings russes
Pub. Info.:   Paris: R. Laffont, 1992
ISBN:         2221068866 (pbk.)

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        Zanskar : the hidden kingdom
Pub. Info.:   London : Collins and Harvill Press, 1979
ISBN:         0002629984

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        Himalaya, continent secret
Pub. Info.:   [Paris] : Flammarion, 1977
ISBN:         2082004368 :

Author:       Peissel, Michel
Title:        The great Himalayan passage : across the Himalayas by
Pub. Info.:   London : Collins, 1974
ISBN:         0002118416 :

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