As always, it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff and in history, it is even more difficult to separate legend from truth. One of such cases is the fabulous story told by Herodotus in the 5th century BC about “outsized furry ants” that dug up enough gold to enrich the Persian Empire. Unless we find hard proof, such stories remain questionable even if Alexander the Great is said to have known about it.
The main problem may simply be that these “giant ants” live in the remote region of the upper Indus River close to the Himalaya Mountains. These creatures are said to be big marmots throwing up soil while building their underground burrows and this soil apparently contains gold. In more recent centuries, explorers were told by the indigenous people that they collected gold dust from these mounds of soil.
Gaining access to the area has been the major setback to expose the truth. The area has been pinpointed to the high plateau of Dansar which overlooks the Indus near the tense cease-fire line between Pakistan and India. Getting there from India is difficult enough but entering the Pakistani side is near-impossible. The high plateau is occupied by the Minaro villagers split up between the two modern countries living at an altitude of some 3,000 meters. Both sides share the same story but the marmots and their burrows can only be found on the Pakistani side of the border. Recently, a landslide had exposed a darker, gold-bearing soil from one meter below the surface and this is exactly the soil which the marmots throw up.
No big secret, but where does the description of “furry gold digging ants” come from? The answer is amazingly simple: Herodotus never visited India but in his days the country was under Persian rule and the Persian word for marmot is “mountain ant” – hence the confusion.
It is clear that this logical explanation needs to be supported by archaeological and geological surveys but the region is still a conflict zone and not safe for travel. Unfortunately, it seems that the population of marmots is dwindling rapidly because soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.