Monday, February 11, 2019

Gold Digging Ants of Herodotus, Part 1

You must have heard the story before. It’s been told for nearly two and a half millennia. People have been arguing for their own views about it since at least the Greek historian Herodotus. The story about the ants — or are those really ants? — he described as digging up gold for the benefit of human prospectors has fascinated a lot of people a lot of times for various reasons. Unfortunately the classic 1870 study by Danish professor Frederic Schiern (1816-1882), in its shortened English translation by Anna Childers, only exists in a version with cracked up letters that won’t scan well. That’s why I resolved to use my own eyesight and keyboard muscles to type it out. My source is The Indian Antiquary, August 1875, pages 225-232. Please forgive me if I’ve made transcription errors of my own (the notes in particular have some terribly unclear letters), although I did double-check and did my best, copying every last jot and tittle as is.* This is only the half of it. There is a brief and I hope representative bibliography at the end for your reading pleasure.**
(*But if you notice inaccuracies in my transcription, please do drop a note in the comments section and I’ll try to fix them.  **This is not a bibliography of the works mentioned by Schiern. He was writing back in the day when abbreviated references were enough.)


by Frederic Schiern, Professor of History at the University of Copenhagen. Translated by Anna M.H. Childers.

HERODOTUS is the earliest Greek writer who mentions gold-digging ants. Omitting irrelevant matter, the following is the account he gives of them:—

“Besides these there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Kaspatyrus and the country of Paktyika: these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Baktrians. 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. These ants make their dwellings underground, 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 just dropped her young: for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burdens very much better . . . .  When, then, 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 so swift, they declare, 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.”†
*Professor Schiern's essay was published in the Verhandl. Kgl. Dänischen Gesellsch. der Wissensch. for 1870, and was also printed separately as a pamphlet in Danish, German, and French. My translation is from the French version, which is considerably abridged, and therefore more suited to the pages of the Antiquary. I have slightly condensed the text in a few places. I take this opportunity of pointing out that Professor Schiern is not the first who has supposed the gold-digging ants to be Tibetan miners, as Pall Mall Gazette of March 16, 1869, written by Sir Henry Rawlinson :— 
“Now then for the first time we have an explanation of the circumstances under which so large a quantity of gold is, as is well known to be the case, exported to the west from Khoten, and finds its way into India from Tibet; and it is probable that the search for gold in this region has been going on from a very remote antiquity, since no one can read the Pandit's account of the Tibetan miners, ‘living in tents some seven or eight feet below the surface of the ground, and collecting the excavated earth in heaps previous to washing the gold out of the soil,’ without being reminded of the description which Herodotus gives of the ‘ants in the land of the Indians bordering on Kaspatyrus (or Kaspapyrus for Kaśyapura or Kāśmīr), which made their dwellings underground, and threw up sand-heaps as they burrowed, the sand which they threw up being full of gold.’ Professor Wilson indeed long ago, and before it was known there were any miners actually at work in Tibet, suggested this explanation of the story in Herodotus, on the mere ground that the grains of gold, collected in that country were called pipilika or ant-gold.”
To Professor Schiern is, however, unquestionably due the merit of an independent discovery, and above all of the lucid and laborious exposition of the evidence in favour of his theory.—A.M.H.C. 
†Herodotus, iii 102, 105. I take the translation from Rawlinson.—A.M.H.C.

Such is the story of the gold-digging ants as told by the far-travelled Herodotus, “the Humboldt of his time,” who had come to Susa for the preparation of his magnificent history, a work scarcely less valuable from a geographical and ethnological than from a historical point of view. The story, for the truth of which Herodotus was compelled to rely entirely upon the statements of the Persians, we find repeated by a great many later Greek and Roman authors.[1] How deeply the legend had taken root among the ancient Greeks may best be seen from the narrative of Harpokration, who records the sarcasms of the comic poets relative to a fruitless expedition against the gold-digging ants undertaken by the Athenians with troops of all arms, and provisions for three days. “It was rumoured among the Athenians one day,” he says, “that a mound of gold-dust had been seen on Mount Hymettus guarded by the warlike ants: whereupon they armed themselves and set out against the foe, but returned to Athens after much expenditure of labour to no purpose, they said mockingly to

[1] Cont. Strabo, II.1; XV.1; Arrian. de Exped. Alexandr. V.4; Indica, 5; Dio Chrysostom, Orat. XXXV.; Philostrat. de l'Iti Apollonii Tyan, VI.1; Clem Alex. Poed, II.12; Allian, de Nat.An. XV.14; Harpokrat. n.t. khrusuthoein(?); Themist. Orat. XXVII; Heliodor. X.26; Tzets. Chil XII.330-340; Pseudo Callisth. II.29; Schol ad Sophoel. Antig. v.1025.


[p. 226]
each-other, ‘So you thought you were going to smelt gold!’”

The gold-digging ants of the Indians are mentioned in the writings of the Middle Ages and in those of the Arabian authors, and the tradition of them survived among the Turks as late as the sixteenth century. None of the authorities throw any doubt upon the truth of the tradition except Strabo, who treats the whole story as a fiction, and Albertus Magnus, who in quoting it adds, “sed hoc non satis est probatum per experimentum.”

The advent of criticism did not at once dispel the belief in this fable. So late as the end of the last century we find the learned Academician Larcher, in his French translation of Herodotus,[1] cautioning his readers against hastily rejecting the narrative of the Greek historian; and two years later, in 1788, Major James Rennel, while admitting the exaggerations of the story, gives it none the less as his opinion that the formidable adversaries of the Indians were termites or white ants.[2] In the 19th century when people at length ceased to look upon these bellicose gold-diggers as really ants, the opinion began to prevail that there had simply been a confusion between the names of the ant and of some animal of larger size. In connection with this view, or even excluding the hypothesis of a confusion of names, it was also supposed that a certain resemblance between the ant and some larger animal had given rise to the fable, or at least contributed to maintain it. The idea of resemblance was especially grounded on the larger animal's mode of digging its burrow, or excavating the earth with any other object. This animal has been variously identified with the corsac or Tartary fox, the hyena, the jackal, the hamster (Mus cricetus) and the marmot.[3] The theory that the auriferous earth cast up by burrowing animals guided the Indian gold-seekers, and originated the tradition of the gold-digging ants, is curiously confirmed by an observation of Alexander von Humboldt: “I have often been struck,” he says, “by seeing ants in the basaltic districts of the highlands of Mexico carrying along shining grains of hyalith, which I was able to pick out of the anthills.”[4] But the supposed similarity which has led to classifying as ants animals widely different from them is not limited to their mode of excavation or throwing up the earth, for an attempt has also been made to extend it to their shape and general appearance. This was done long ago by Jacob Gronovius in his interpretation of the ancient narrative,[5] and even in our own time Xivrey expresses himself still more plainly to the same effect.[6]

The hypothesis of a confusion of names had to be entirely abandoned when Wilson pointed out that the ancient Sanskrit literature of India itself mentions these ants. In a remarkable passage of the great Indian epic, the Mahâbhârata, we have an enumeration of the treasures sent by the Northern tribes to king Yudhisthira, one of the sons of Pâṇḍu, and among them are lumps of paipilika gold, so called because it was collected by ants (pipîlikîs).[7] Apart from this fact, it must be admitted that the burrowing habits of foxes, jackals and hyenas hardly afford a plausible pretext for confounding them with ants : it would be more natural to make comparisons of this sort with certain rodents such as marmots, but even those who adopt this solution make no attempt to ignore its weak points. Thus Lassen writes: “The accounts of their prodigious swiftness, their pursuit and destruction of gold-seekers and their camels, must be looked upon as purely imaginary, since they (marmots) are slow in their movements and of a gentle disposition.”[8] In the same way Peschel makes the following admission : “It has not been hitherto explained on what grounds such remarkable speed and ferocity should be attributed to these ants, while marmots are represented as peace-loving crea-

[1] Tome III, p. 339.
[2] Memoir of a Map of Hindostan, Int. p. xxix.
[3] Conf. Link. Die Urwelt und das Alterthum (Berlin 1821-22), I, 258; Ritter, Die Erdkunde, III, 659; Humboldt, Kosmos, II, 176; Wahl, Erdbeschreibung von Ostindien (Hamburg 1805-7), II, 185, 486; Wilford, Asiat. Res. XIV, 467. Kruse [?], Indiens alte Geschichte (Leipzig, 1856), p. 39; Heeren, [illeg.] über die Politik, I, 1, 348; Vigne, Travels in Kashmir ¶c, 1f, 287; Peschel, Der Ursprung und die Verbreitung einiger geographischen Mythen in Mittelalter, II, 265; Lassen, Ind.Alt, I, 50, 1022; Cunningham, Ladak, p. 232.
[4] Kosmos, II, 422. Compare the story of the diamond anthill in the case of Rahery [Rubery?] n. Sampson.—Ed.
[5] Worte in den Anmerkungen zu Tschuckes Ausgabe von Pomponius Mela (Leipzig, 1806), III, 3, 245.
[6] Traditions tératologiques, pp. 265, 267.
[7] Wilson, Ariana Antiqua, p. 135, and Jour. R. As.Soc. (1843) vol. VII, p. 148
[8] Ind. Alt. I, 1922.


[p. 227]
tures.”[1] In short, as regards those writers who have endeavoured to explain the confusion of names by a certain external resemblance, suffice it to say that they have themselves despaired of finding an animal that would satisfy the conditions of their theory. Xivrey naïvely attributes this difficulty to the auri sacra fames, holding that a race of gold-digging animals may have really existed, and gradually disappeared before the incursions of man.[2]

We now come to a wholly different solution of the question. So long ago as the year 1819 Malte-Brun wrote : “May we not also suppose that an Indian tribe really bore the name of ants?”[3] It is by following up the clue thus afforded by our learned countryman that we may hope to arrive at a solution of this question. But it will be necessary in the first place to determine, in what direction we are to look for the dwelling-place of the gold-digging ants, by taking as our starting-point the places mentioned by Herodotus. According to the Greek historian, the Indians who went in search of the gold lived in the neighbourhood of the city of Kaspatyrus (Κασπατυρος) and of Paktyike (η Πακτυικη χωρη). Now the inhabitants of Paktyike are none other than the Afghans, who in the west call themselves Pashtun and in the east Pakhtun,[4] a name idéntical with that given to them by Herodotus. As to the second locality, instead of Kaspatyrus, the name given in most editions of Herodotus, the Codex Sancroftianus, preserved in Emanuel College, Cambridge, give that of Kaspapyrus (Κασπαπυρος), a reading found also in Stephanus Byzantinus, and clearly pointing to the ancient name of the capital of Kâśmîr, Kâśyapapura, contracted to Kâśyapura.

We are thus brought to śmîr. We have in our own times seen how the Sikhs, the present masters of śmîr, took possession of large portions of Tibet, namely, of Ladak or Central Tibet in 1831, and of Balti or Little Tibet in 1840. But we know that in former times the Subâhdârs, or governors of śmîr under the Great Mughul, and earlier yet the kings, both Muhammadan and Hindu, of independent śmîr, likewise strove to extend their conquests in the same direction. And hence we may well suppose that it was to Tibet that the Indians of Herodotus repaired when they left their native śmîr in search of gold. This supposition is confirmed by the fact that Strabo and the elder Pliny expressly mention the Dards as those who robbed the ants of their treasures.[5] For the Dards are not an extinct race. According to the accounts of modern travellers, they consist of several wild and predatory tribes dwelling among the mountains on the north-west frontier of śmîr, and by the banks of the Indus : [6] they are the Daradas of Sanskrit literature. They understand Pushtu, the language of the Afghans,[7] but their native tongue is a Sanskritic idiom. Even at the present day they carry on their marauding profession in Little and Central Tibet, and it is chiefly on this account that the picturesque vale of Huzara, which has at all times belonged to Little Tibet, remains in great part waste, in spite of its natural fertility.[8] Mir Izzet Ullah, the travelling companion of Moorcroft, who visited Tibet in 1812, writes as follows in his Journal:—“The houses of this country from Matayin to this place are all wrecked and deserted. Last year a great number of the inhabitants were carried off by bands of Dards, an independent tribe who live in the mountains three or four days’ march north of Diriras, and speak Pashtu and Dáradi. The prisoners made by them in these raids are sold for slaves.”[9]

AElian, who makes the river Kampylinus the limit of the ant country,[10] throws no light upon the question of Tibet, for it is impossible to gather from the text whether or not the Kampylinus denotes a branch of the Indus. But Tibet is indicated with tolerable certainty in the remarkable passage of the Mahâbhârata above referred to, as well as in the statements of Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny. For among the north-

[1] Der Ursprung und Verbreitung einiger geographischen Mythen im Mittelalter, in Deutsch Vierteljahrschrift, II. 266.
[2] Trad. tératologiques, p. 267.
[3] Mémoire sur l'Inde septentrionale, in Nouvelles Annales des Voyages (Paris, 1819), II. 382.
[4] Hindustanicè Pathân.—Ed.
[5] Strabo, XV. 1; Pliny, Hist. Nat. VI. 22; XI. 36.
[6] Vigne, Travels, II. 300 ; Leitner, Dardistan, II. 31-34.
[7] Vigne, Travels, II. 268.
[8] Moorcroft and xxxx [the notes are illegible here in my copy]


[p. 228]
-ern tribes who brought to king Yudhishṭhira the paipîlika gold the Khaśas are expressly mentioned ; and not only are the Khaśas frequently alluded to in the Kâśmîrian chronicle Râja Taragiî, which locates them in the neighbourhood of the city of Kâśmîr,[1] but they are even known at the present day under the name of Khasiyas, as a people speaking one of the Indian languages, and dwelling on the borders of Tibet.[2] In the passage relating to the tribute brought to the king by the Khaśas and other northern tribes, the Mahâbhârata also speaks of “sweet honey made from the flowers of Himavat,” and of “fine black châmaras , and others that were white and brilliant as the moon.” Now Himavat is only another name for the Himâlaya, and châmara is the name of the fans or fly-flaps which in India kings only are allowed to use, and which are made from the tail of the Yak or Tibetan ox (Bos grunniens).[3] 

[1] Troyer's transl. II. 321 ff. ; Neumann, Geschichte des englischen Reiches in Asien (Leipzig, 1837), I. 209 ; Lassen, Ind' Alt. I. 1820 ; Huc, Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, &c 264-66, 311, 321, 381.
[2] Hodgson in Jour. As. Soc. Beng. (1848) XVII. 546 ; Lassen, Ind. Alt. I. 24, 67, 459, 473=74, 646, 1020-1021.

TO BE CONTINUED!  We’ll start up again at p. 228, the first full paragraph.

Herodotus, one of the world's earliest history book writers.

BRUNIALTI, A. “La tradizione delle formiche che scavano l'oro e il minator del Tibet” [The Tradition of Ants that Dig Gold and the Minator of Tibet], Bol. Soc. Geog. Ital., vol. 40 (1874), pp. 370-6.  Not seen. 

CARDELL, MONIQUE L. “Herodotus and the Gold Digging Ants, A Voyage across Time and Space,” a paper in docx format from the internet (now try this link). 

FRANCKE, AUGUST HERMANN “Two Ant Stories from the Ancient Kingdom of Western Tibet (A Contribution to the Question of the Gold-Digging Ants),” Asia Major, vol. 1 (1924), pp. 67-75.  With patience, you may be able to download the volume here.

JEAN-BAPTISTE, PATRICK “L'historien grec Herodotus a-t-il dit la verite? L'or des marmottes” [Did the Greek Historian Herodotus Tell the Truth?  The Marmots’ Gold], Sciences et avenir, no. 656 (2001), pp. 74-75. 

KARSAI, GY. “Die Geschichte von den goldgrabenden Ameisen” [The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants], Annales Universitatis Budapestinensis, Sectio Classica, vol. 5-6 (1977-8), pp. 61-72. 

KARTTUNEN, KLAUS India in Early Greek Literature, Studia Orientalia series no. 65 (Helsinki 1989), especially the section “Gold-Digging Ants” on pp. 171-176. 
LAUFER, BERTHOLD “Die Sage von den goldgrabenden Ameisen” [The Legend of the Gold-Digging Ants], T'oung Pao, vol. 9 (1908), pp. 429-452. 

McCARTNEY, EUGENE S. “The Gold-Digging Ants,” Classical Journal, vol. 49 (1954), p. 234. For this you need JSTOR and an academic subscription.

PEISSEL, MICHEL The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the HimalayasHarvill Press (London 1984). On the author’s very eventful life, try looking here.

PUSKAS, ILDIKO “On An Ethnographical Topos in the Classical Literature (The Gold-Digging Ants),” Annales Universitaris Budapestinensis, Sectio classica, vol. 5-6 (1977-78), pp. 73-87.

REGENOS, G.W. “A Note on Herodotus III, 102,” The Classical Journal, vol. 34, no. 7 (April 1939), pp. 425-426. 

RIZVI, JANET “Lost Kingdoms of the Gold-Digging Ants” [a review of Michel Peissel's book L'or des fourmis: La découvete de l'Eldorado grec au Tibet], India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 131-147. 

SCHIERN, FREDERIC “The Tradition of the Gold-Digging Ants,” tr. by Anna M.H. Childers, Indian Antiquary, vol. 4 (August 1875), pp. 225-232. Idem., Über den Ursprung der Sage von den goldgrabenden Ameisen (Copenhagen/Leipzig 1883).  Try this link.  Same title in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. 6 (1874), 98-101, although this is actually a review by Felix Liebrecht. Many want the ants to be some other larger animal, but Schiern wants them to be a group of humans instead. If you go read Francke, it may sway you back in favor of the antness of the ants, hard telling.

SHARMA, ARVIND “The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants: Greek Rationality or Rationalization?” From the internet; try here. 
I think Arvind Sharma is on to something: Not only later classical Greek authors, but modern classicists as well, have been gripped by the urge to “save” the rationalism of Herodotus, and the Greeks as a whole, from what looks like a fantastically irrational story. Rationalists feel duty-bound to defend what must be perceived by us all as the origins of our European-Aristotelian rationalism. And to do this they see themselves entirely justified in using whatever reasonable-enough-sounding rationalization works for them. True, E.R. Dodds did write that book on The Greeks and the Irrational.

SIMONS, MARLISE “Himalayas Offer Clue to Legend of Gold-Digging ‘Ants’.” New York Times (November 25, 1996).  Try here

THOMAS, DANA “An Explorer’s Answer to the Tale of Furry, Gold-Digging Ants,” The Washington Post (December 16, 1996).  Try here

WARSH, DAVID “Found: Mountain Mouse Ants,” Aramco World (September 1997). Look here. Also reprinted on the internet at

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In fact there are any number of internet pieces on the subject, just try cutting and pasting the words

Herodotus and the Gold Digging Ants

into the Schmoogle box and see what pops up.  Like this, for instance.

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