TIME: DECEMBER 9, 1996 VOL. 148 NO. 26




For more than 2,500 years, historians have been intrigued by Herodotus' tale of large furry ants that enriched the Persian empire by burrowing for gold. Herodotus' story of "ants bigger than foxes but smaller than dogs" inspired generations of treasure hunters and explorers--going back to Alexander the Great. In the absence of proof, some classical scholars concluded that the man many call the father of history was at best gullible and at worst a liar.

Now it appears he may have been right--or largely so. Recently returned from a Himalayan expedition, French explorer-anthropologist Michel Peissel and British photographer Sebastian Guinness say they have located the gold-digging ants on Pakistan's Dansar plain near the tense 1949 cease-fire line with India. The "ants," it turns out, are actually marmots, cat-size rodents that burrow in a gold-bearing stratum of sandy soil a few feet underground. Peissel believes Herodotus' confusion came from the ancient Persian word for marmot, which means mountain ant.

Peissel first heard about the gold-digging marmots in 1983, while traveling on the Indian side of the border. Local Minaro tribesmen told him that their ancestors extracted gold from sand that stuck to the rodents' fur and was deposited on the surface. Trouble was, the marmots were located on the Pakistani side of the cease-fire line in an area that is regularly strafed with mortar and gunfire. It took Peissel 14 years to get permission to visit the region under Pakistani military escort. But he is convinced it was worth the wait. "The expedition's findings at long last vindicate Herodotus," says Peissel, "ending what may be the longest treasure hunt in history."

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