Les marmottes et l'orpaillage.
Controversy over the real identity of the Indian gold-digging ants (or ant-lions) has continued until the present. Scholars have suggested a variety of animals including dogs, marmots, pangolins, mongooses, and the badger-like ratel (Kevan 1992).
In a 1996 New York Times article, Marlise Simons reports the mystery may now be solved. In one of the most inaccessible regions of the Himalayas along the
upper Indus River, French ethnologist Michel Peissel
and other explorers say they found marmots throwing
up gold-bearing soil from deep underground as they dig
their burrows. Moreover, the indigenous Minaro
people living there say that for generations they have
collected gold dust from the marmots' work. So why
did Hêródotos and other ancient writers describe the furry marmots as ants? Peissel's favored
explanation is that confusion set in because in Persian the word for marmot is equivalent to
"mountain ant." In addition, marmots are unusually large in the Himalayas, with bushy fur
and a large fox-like tail. They have razor-sharp teeth and claws. "They can be ferocious if one
tampers with their burrows, which is just what the gold-seekers did," Peissel says (Simons
While this discovery may explain the centuries-old mystery, Peissel would like to test his
findings with a full archeological and geological survey. However, the area lies on the tense
border between Pakistan and India, so the political climate may prevent such work. Says
Peissel: "It's right in the line of fire of both sides. There was gunfire when we were there. The
locals tell us that the marmots are dwindling. The Indian soldiers are constantly taking
potshots at them" (Simons 1996).
Simons, Marlise. 1996. 'Gold-Digging Ants' mystery seems solved, after bugging scholars for centuries. New York Times, 25 November.