Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in his famous "Histories" of furry "ants bigger than foxes and smaller than dogs" that dig up large quantities of gold-bearing sand, which the local people collected. Ever since, emperors and explorers from Alexander the Great of Greece to Baron Alexander von Humboldt of Germany have been seduced by this tale of the "Greek El Dorado."
But in those 2 1/2 millenniums, no one has solved the mystery -- until possibly now.
French explorer and anthropologist Michel Peissel, after a five-week expedition to the Dansar plain, an 11,500-foot-high plateau on the Pakistani side of the India-Pakistan cease-fire line, claims to have found the furry "ants" and their gold-bearing sands.
"Where Alexander the Great failed I succeeded," boasted the 59-year-old explorer during a recent interview. "I've vindicated Herodotus and ended the longest treasure hunt in history."
The furry "ants," said Peissel, are, in fact, not "ants" at all. They are marmots, stout, short-legged burrowing rodents the size of large possums. Herodotus's mislabeling of the gold-bearing creatures may simply have been vocabulary confusion: The word for marmot in ancient Persian is "mountain mouse ant."
"Whether Herodotus himself made the mistake or one of his sources will never been known," said Alex Hollmann, a Herodotus scholar at Harvard University. "But if the discovery is true, it shows that although Herodotus may have misunderstood the story. He wasn't certainly making it up."
The gold-digging ants legend has punctuated history for centuries. "In India," Herodotus wrote, "there is a sandy desert where there are ants smaller than that of dogs but greater than that of foxes. And these ants make their dwelling underneath the earth and they bring up the sand when they are tunneling, just as ants in Greece do, and the sand which is brought up is of gold. The Indians go after this gold, each of them yoking together three camels. . . . The Indians have little sacks which they fill with sand as quickly as they can. They have to do it quickly because as soon as the ants smell them, they chase after them . . . so if the Indians didn't manage to get a head start there is no way any of them would get out alive."
Experts agreed that the setting for the story was somewhere in northern India; Herodotus said that the gold-digging ants were north of Kasapatyros, which was later identified as the capital of Kashmir. Over the years, some thought the "ants" were actually hyenas. Others said they were foxes. "The Indians, Chinese, even Sophocles talked about the golden sands," said Peissel. Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is reported to have received the "pelts" of the "ants" from the emperor of Persia. "Pliny the Elder claimed there were horns of the gold-digging ants in the temple of Hercules," he said.
In the 19th century, Humboldt said he found the ants -- real ants -- but they were bringing up pyrite, not gold. But still, there was no complete explanation of Herodotus's story.
Peissel, who has spent most of his adult life traveling the world investigating the mysteries of ancient history, first became intrigued with the story as a young man. Then, in 1982, while he was studying an archaic tribe called the Minaro along the Indus River, Peissel's guide mentioned that his grandfather collected gold from the burrows of the marmots on the nearby Dansar plateau in the Baltistan region of Pakistan. Could it be, Peissel thought, the same story as that of Herodotus?
Peissel returned to his home in Spain, where he wrote the book "The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas," published in Britain, France and Russia, in which he offered his hypothesis. But he had not actually seen the marmots, or the golden sand. "And you never know," Peissel said. "Only the peasants had told me, and they may have been saying it to please me."
After one aborted trip to search, Peissel set aside his quest, and instead went on several explorations in the outer reaches of Tibet, where he claims to have found the source of the Mekong River and a previously undocumented prehistoric pony, and forgot all about the gold-digging ants.
But last summer, Pakistan's ambassador to France, S.K. Dehlavi, met with Peissel and urged the explorer to resume his search. Peissel agreed, and in September he headed off with British photographer Sebastian Guinness to the dangerous and highly restricted cease-fire line area where the Dansar plain is located.
The pair traveled by Jeep up a narrow, jagged gorge through the imposing Himalayan mountains, and hiked the last two miles to the plateau. First, Peissel and Guinness received oral confirmation of the story. "Then we saw the plain, and the marmots," Peissel said, "and we knew we had solved the mystery."
He did not stick around long enough to actually witness the marmots regurgitating gold-laced sand from their burrows. "The armies are firing mortars there," Peissel said. "You'll get shot." But he did see the marmots and talked to locals who said they indeed did collect the gold from the animal's burrows. Peissel scooped up some sand from marmot burrows, which he sent to a lab to be analyzed.
"We did not find a marmot rushing out of a burrow with a gold nugget in its hand," Peissel said, "but we confirmed that this place really exists and that Herodotus was truly right and those . . . who were looking for it should have gone to the Dansar plain."
Herodotus, commonly known as the "father of history," collected stories from sources from around the world, which it is believed he first recited, and then published, sometime around 425 B.C. The gold-digging ants legend is one of the most famous, because of its outrageousness.
Hollmann said there is a "big split" among scholars regarding the truth of Herodotus's writings. "One group of scholars believes Herodotus made up a lot of things -- he is sometimes called the father of lies.' But then there is another group who gets incensed by this and tries to prove that everything in Herodotus was either following some kind of tradition or that the story can be validated by archaeological evidence." Peissel seems to have empowered the pro-Herodotus group by confirming the tale of the gold-digging ants. Unfortunately, in the almost 50 years since the cease-fire line was established on the Dansar plain, soldiers have nearly wiped out the marmot population by shooting the animals for target practice. And the local people no longer collect the rich earth. "Gold washing is very tedious and not well paid," Peissel explained. "It's simply no longer worth the effort." SOURCES: Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, "The Ants' Gold," Michel Peissel CAPTION: For centuries, the tale of the "Greek El Dorado" has remained a puzzle. According to the story, recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus, somewhere in India huge ants dug up large amounts of gold-bearing sand. Despite many attempts to confirm or explain the story, it has remained a mystery. Now, French explorer and anthropologist Michel Peissel says he's come up with an answer: The "ants" were really marmots in Pakistan.