Herodotus vs. the Ants

20 May

Some of the earliest attempts at sitting down and recording natural history took place in ancient Greece. Herodotus, a fifth century BCE historian, is notable for his systematic accumulation and testing of foreign tales. His work has earned him the title ‘the father of history’. However, his work is, at times, laughably inaccurate. After all, Herodotus was only reporting what was told to him by others, often adding his own opinions or subtracting bits he disliked. He was, in essence, a secondary source.

His natural history, in particular, leaves much to be desired. In addition to including mythical animals such as the phoenix, Herodotus also made some peculiar claims about far away lands and their local fauna. One of his most famous claim was about the giant ants of India.

In Book 3: 102-105 Herodotus writes that these ants were larger than a fox, but smaller than a dog and covered in furry hair. The king of Persia knew of these animals and kept a few as pets. The ants lived under ground in a vast sandy plain and would sometimes bring gold ore to the surface, littered outside their burrow. This was, of course, a terrible and dangerous temptation to the local people, for the ants were extremely territorial, carnivorous, and could outrun a camel. There is talk of having to use three camels lashed together to escape their ire (although I personally cannot begin to understand how this would work).

I assume the riders would be screaming in terror the whole way

Funny thing is… he might have been telling the truth. In a way. In the 1980’s a French ethnologist, Michel Peissel, noted that in the isolated Deosai Plateau of northern Pakistan fits the description of the place fairly well. It is a high sandy plain that is rich in gold dust. Furthermore, the local Minaro people talk of collecting the ore from around the burrows of a local species of marmot.

In fact, Peissel posits, it is quite likely that these are the creatures that Herodotus was describing.

It seems Herodotus was simply the victim of a bad translation. There must have been some confusion between the ancient traveler’s Persian and his native Greek. The guy said ‘marmot’ and the Greek heard ‘mountain ant’. Of course there was some embellishment, as there always is, (the marmots cannot outrun a camel nor do they eat people) but perhaps Herodotus was not quite the liar he was made out to be.

Still, not even going to comment on some of his other ‘facts’.

Sources: for primary translation, WikipediaCamel Photos

1 Comment

Posted by on May 20, 2011 in History, Natural History


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