The Mystery of the Golden Ants

CNN December 2, 1996
From Correspondent Peter Humi

PARIS (CNN) -- An ancient tale of gold-bearing wildlife in the Asian subcontinent has recently been revived -- and perhaps validated -- by a French explorer braving the unstable political climate and harsh environment of Baltistan.

The mystery of the "golden ants" dates back 2,500 years to the time of Herodotus, the Greek historian, who wrote of creatures that dug up rich, gold bearing soil. The legend attracted dozens of treasure seekers over the centuries until finally Herodotus' story was dismissed as fabrication.

But Dr. Michel Peissel believes he has uncovered the source of the golden ants rumor about 14,600 feet (4,500 meters) above sea-level in a desolate, windswept and nearly inaccessible area.

Baltistan lies in the extreme north of the Indian subcontinent, bordering the towering Himalaya Mountains. It is a disputed province straddling the uneasy cease-fire line separating the armies of India and Pakistan.

A secret revealed

It is in this territory few bother to visit that the "ants" revealed themselves to Peissel on the Dansar plain.

"Whereas many people thought they'd found it, nobody was ever able to back their claims or locate it," said Peissel.

Baltistan's Minaro people, an archaic group whose origins are not entirely clear to academics, directed Peissel to the Dansar plain. But the Frenchman was not able to follow up on their tip until this fall. Now he believes he has solved the mystery behind one of the world's great treasure hunts.

Escorted by Pakistani army guides into this dangerous and inhospitable region, Peissel's expedition found not ants, but marmots. The furry, burrowing animals are found in various forms throughout the world's high-altitude zones. Slightly larger than cats, the marmots live in holes dug out of the Dansar's sandy soil.

In a land once ruled by the Persians, the legend of the golden ants is likely the result of an error in translation.

The mountain ant

In ancient Persian the word for marmot was "mountain ant". And the mountain ants do indeed dig up gold on occasion.

"We could see the strata where, indeed, the gold-bearing layer lay three feet beneath the surface of the white sand," said Peissel. "And we could understand how the marmots could bring it up"

Today the marmots have the plain and its gold mostly to themselves. The hazards of the India-Pakistan cease-fire zone and the relative scarcity of the shiny stuff in the ground have sent humanity packing. People, for the most part, avoid the Dansar in a way that would have been unnatural for the ancestors of past millennia.

But gold is still panned in some of Baltistan's fast-flowing rivers. Local people use sluicing implements unchanged by the passage of the centuries. Returns in river beds, however are just as meager as those on the Dansar, but significantly safer to obtain.

"Strangely enough, whereas they were washing gold all over the area a hundred years ago, today only the very poorest people bother about gold," said Peissel.

The spectacular terrain of Baltistan's Dansar plain may have finally revealed the legend of the golden ants, but it seems it was a legend far richer in the telling than in substance.