Sacred Tribal Ritual -- Poisonous Ant Bites

In the heart of the Amazon rain forest, the strange rituals of a small tribe of indigenous people provide clues to possible future discoveries of medical science.

We set out by speedboat for the small village of the Sataré Maué, approximately 30 minutes upstream from Manaus on the tea-colored waters of the Rio Negro.

We had been invited to meet a small tribe of Indians whose lives, livelihood and customs have not changed in centuries. As we approached the village, the sound of drums emanated from the forest. The driver of our boat said that the drumming was a signal that we were welcome to come ashore and visit.

We scrambled up the riverbank and into the forest and immediately found ourselves at the edge of the village common -- an earthen circle defined by a perimeter of palm fronds supported by bamboo. All 32 inhabitants of the village were assembled in the common area, their arms, legs and faces painted with an inky black substance in various ceremonial designs. They had gathered for a uniquely terrifying ritual to be performed on the 13-year-old son of the village chief.


Coming of Age

Chief Ramal Ato explained through an interpreter that we were about to witness a "coming of age" ceremony for his son, Taché, who sat nearby, wearing a green crown of woven palm fronds that pressed tightly across his forehead. Almost immediately, Chief Ramal began an ominous chant while stamping his bare feet on the packed-earth floor.

Hanging on a kind of bamboo easel in the center of the common area were two large armbands -- perhaps 8 inches long -- made of the same woven palm fronds used to make Taché's crown. Locked between the weaves of each armband was a squirming, wriggling mass of very large black ants, perhaps a hundred or more on each armband. Highly poisonous, the bite of just one of these tocandira ants can be lethal, but to the Sataré Maué they are also sacred and play a terrifyingly central role in the ceremony.

Suddenly, 13-year-old Taché was swept up in the arms of his father -- the dancing, chanting chief -- and other men of the village. Women joined in, and soon Taché found himself at the center of a loud, swirling mass of foot-stamping and singing. At the frenzied peak of the ceremony, Chief Ramal broke from the group and solemnly removed the two armbands of writhing ants from their place at the center and began a dance with his son, who, according to tradition, must put on the armbands and endure the bites of perhaps dozens of tocandire ants.

Mysterious Medicine

The sacred role of the tocandira ant in an important tribal ritual is explained by the ant's mysterious medicinal value to the Sataré Maué. Over countless generations, the Sataré Maué have learned that the dangerous bite of the tocandira ant also delivers something very precious and crucial: a natural defense against mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. For a people that live naturally in the Amazon rain forest -- hunting and gathering for food, clothing and shelter -- repelling mosquitoes is crucial to good health. And so, while dangerous, the bite of the tocandira ant is also a necessary, natural inoculation for all young men as they begin hunting and trekking deep into the jungle.

On this day, though -- without explanation -- Chief Ramal only symbolically held the armbands close to his son's wrists, without actually tying them on. For now at least, Taché was spared the pain and indignity of the ant bites that will make him sick for a while but may protect him when he is ready for life as an adult. Chief Ramal did tell us that in a normal lifetime, an adult of the Sataré Maué will require approximately 20 tocandira ant "inoculations" to ensure the highest level of protection against mosquitoes.

The experience of the Sataré Maué with the tocandira ant as a natural mosquito repellant is one of myriad mysteries of the Amazon rain forest -- perhaps yet another example of a possible future discovery for modern medicine that could be lost with the vanishing rain forest.