Friday, October 10, 2003

Herodotus and Gold Digging Ants

As you know, I’ve been listening to Herodotus on my commute. Many of his descriptions of people and places are surprisingly accurate but I thought the Arabs who described how the Indians collected gold dust were playing a joke on him. He said he was told that there were ants the size of foxes that dug gold out of the ground. Men would approach these ferocious animals riding a female camel with a male camel tethered on each side. If the “ants” saw the men collecting the gold dust they would attack and the men would flee with their camels. The ants were so tenacious that they would persist in the chase. As the camels began to tire, the rider would loose one male and then the other male, presumably to be overtaken and consumed by the ants. Herodotus explained that the female camel’s motherly instincts would make her strive harder to escape the ants and return to her young.

Well, I thought this sounded like a plot from a B0-rated 1950s horror movie (Remember the movie “Them” about the huge irradiated ants?) so you can imagine my surprise when I read that Onescrites, one of Alexander’s officers, reported in his journal during their exploits in India that he had seen ants as big as foxes digging gold. Now, either Onescrites was quite familiar with Herodotus and was doing a little exaggeration of his own or both Greek translations are incorrect and the men must have been talking about ant eaters and not ants.