The Ant Theory Of Humanity

Photo: Harpegnathos saltator – Indian Jumping Ant, India: Alex Wild


January 15, 2010

below written by Marc Latham

Marc Latham finds philosophical inspiration in a colony of ants in Africa, culminating in an ‘Ant Theory’ of humanity’s place in the universe.

Traveling offers us the chance to let our minds roam – probably more than at any time in our lives.

Not only do we have ample time to think, we also continually encounter new and exciting features of the world: amazing animals, diverse human cultures and awesome structures.

While I’ve certainly enjoyed the experiences for their aesthetic value and brilliance, I’ve found my thoughts turning to theories and philosophy. After all, Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking theory of gravity was supposed to have been inspired by the chance witnessing of a falling apple.

One particular event stuck with me:

I was walking along a track near the Kibale Forest in Uganda, where I witnessed our closest evolutionary relatives: chimpanzees. Yet it was not my encounter with the chimps that inspired my thoughts, but a column of ants crossing a path.

An Ants’ Nest

An Altered View

As I watched the ants I thought how they resembled a column of human travelers seen from above. Looking closer, I saw ants guarding the flanks, as human soldiers might for a civilian convoy. The ants were oblivious to me and the potential threat I posed: they were focused on their immediate surroundings in the insect world.

Maybe we are a part of something much bigger and intelligent than we can even comprehend.

While some ant species have managed to travel the world, as we and our machines are exploring our universe, ants don’t have the ability to comprehend Planet Earth as we do.

This inspired me to think how it may be the same for humanity in the great scheme of things. As ants are part of our existence but have no concept of humanity; maybe we are a part of something much bigger and intelligent than we can even comprehend.

It’s not the ants’ fault they cannot grasp this greater truth – just as we are limited by our own intellectual range. We may never have the intelligence to know the true meaning of our universe and existence.

Science Meets Religion

The limits of our understanding were highlighted by a recent BBC Horizon television documentary on black holes: Who’s Afraid of a Big Black Hole?

The show included Professor Michio Kaku and Professor Max Tegmark explaining how growing evidence of black holes in space has cast doubt on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was the accepted theory of nature for much of the twentieth century.

The scientists don’t think we have even created the equations for working out a theory of everything, let alone solved them.

Although the obvious limitations of scientific theory seem to open the door to religion, our growing understanding of the immensity of the universe also brings religious texts that focus on Planet Earth into question.

If we accept current astronomical discoveries as factual, why would a God spend so much time creating a massive universe, with ‘biblical’ sized events such as polar lights, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions on trillions of unmanned planets and stars for billions of years before humanity acquired the technology to observe a little of it?

We Don’t Know What’s Out There

One Minute Astonomer succinctly explained our planet’s diminutive size within ‘known space’:

  • Our Milky Way galaxy is one of forty members of the local group of galaxies.
  • The Virgo Cluster of galaxies, which is visible in our sky, has 2,000 galaxies.
  • Each big galaxy in the Virgo Cluster has a trillion stars (and some are much bigger than our sun) or more.

I believe humanity’s ability to explain our cosmic role is limited today because we have hardly left our planet. We have not seen the ends of our universe.

In reality, humanity has only been physically exploring the cosmos for the last fifty years; a minuscule amount of time in the great scheme of things.

The concluding sentence from one of the scientists on the Horizon documentary admitted: “We don’t know what’s out there. People might give you an answer, but they’d probably be wrong.”

Relatively speaking, I believe we may know as much as those ants in Kibale knew about the planet we share. Our place at the moment is somewhere between ants and the unknown – offering plenty of terrain left to explore.

January 15, 2010

above written by Marc Latham



Jaglavak, Prince of Insects:
A Cameroon People’s Alliance With an Ant

below written by Christian Seignobos

November 20, 2007


The Mofu, who live in the Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon, have developed a rich lore about their insects and have a particularly impressive entomological vocabulary. This may be in part because insects are virtually the only other creatures living on their jumble of boulders and terraces.

The Mofu eat certain insects, though this practice seems to have been more widespread in the past than it is now. Insects are also used in medicine and agriculture, serve as omens, and are even the object of board games. And for the Mofu, certain insects “speak” while others, like bees and mosquitoes, are socially neutral.

The jaglavak

The Mofu are particularly interested in two types of insects, those involved in the growth and conservation of grain sorghum, their stable crop, and those ants or termites that live in social groups. The Mofu relate these social insects to their own politico-religious beliefs as well as to their systems of kinship and social relations. Among ant species, those of the Dorylus genus, a type of driver ant that is known to the Mofu as jaglavak, hold a special place.

The Mofu associate the jaglavak with termites, which is logical because jaglavak soldiers resemble those of certain species of the termite order, Isoptera. The Dorylus ants live in underground communities, sometimes in large numbers, without building visible nests. Their ferocity in attacking termites and the fact that no other insects appear able to resist them have conferred upon the jaglavak a position of eminence. Yet the jaglavak seemingly avoids other insects that are “organized as it is,” according to the Mofu, including two species of termites that they know as the mananeh (Microcerotermes solidus) and the ndakkol (Trinervitermes trinervius), and especially the gula ant (Megaponera sp.).

Chief of the massif

There are several “interpretations” of the jaglavak. In relation to other insects, the jaglavak is defined by kinship and relations of alliance or power. Some say the termite mananeh is its “cousin”; others say the mananeh is the “prince of the plain insects” and rival of the jaglavak. The jaglavak’s ndaw kuli (what the Mofu call its “intimate friend”), who stands in for the head of the family in sacrifices (kuli), is singel gagazana, a red ant (Pheidole sp.), while another ant, ndroa (Lepisiota sp.), is the mananeh‘s “intimate friend.” The jaglavak is considered the chief of the entire massif, from Wazang to Meri (see map at right), while other ants constitute “local chiefs.” The classification scheme is rough, and its composition varies by region. One wonders, was it once more firmly fixed?

By virtue of an ancient alliance, the jaglavak are believed to aid the Movo in times of trouble.

The Mofu see correlations between chiefs of the massifs and chiefs of the animal realm. The panther and the Mofu chief are one and the same; the chief commands the panthers. When a panther is killed on a massif, by rule the skin goes to the chief, who either keeps or disposes of the head and whiskers. He is supposed to eat the eyes and give the liver to his sons. The last act involved in the ritual burial of the massif chiefs is the turning over of the mortuary bundle into the grave, which is accomplished by pushing it while turning away and imitating the panther’s snarl.

In certain Mofu mountain ranges, and also among the Jimi and the Gude, the crocodile was perceived as the chief of water-dwelling animals. The death of a crocodile would be announced to the chief as that of a relative would be, and people would cry over it. When one was slaughtered, the chief would ritually eat its tongue.

The jaglavak, for its part, held the role of “prince of insects.” In the past, Mofu mountain chiefs would closely follow the jaglavak’s movements and behavior to find omens. If there was combat between the jaglavak and the ant ndroa, for example, seers would interpret the repercussions of this combat for the massif chiefdom. For the Zumaya, the clan of the Douvangar chief, the jaglavak furnished the war stone, which would be found in its nest. In the absence of a stone, in other massifs, such as that of the Meri people, before combat people might put some jaglavak on a pointed stone against which they would then rub their spearheads.

The “prince” and the Movo

The Mofu use the jaglavak to explain their own history, in particular the case of the Movo. The jaglavak is supposed to be the equivalent of the Movo people, who are now dispersed among the Mofu. Long ago, the Movo possessed a powerful chiefdom on the banks of the seasonal river Mayo Tsanaga, in the foothills facing the principal point of entry into the Mandara Mountains. This chiefdom was to give rise to the Gudur chiefdom, installed higher up the mountain. In the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, the Movo dominated the Mofu massifs and foothills and well beyond. Crushed by the Wandala kingdom, from which they had originated, and then dispersed by the Peuls, the Movo took refuge in the Mofu massifs.

Today, the Movo are viewed as clans that inspire respect, fear, indeed ostracism. Thus, the Movo are accused of sending caterpillars into the sorghum crop and in the past have been accused of sending locusts. And when a Movo individual is buried, it is deemed necessary to spread ashes on the path where the cadaver has passed, in order to prevent worms and other granary predators from touching grain supplies.

The jaglavak is often designated as “the red insect,” referring to the color that is the emblem of the Movo. And a parallel can be seen in the fact that the jaglavak are Dorylus ants, which move from place to place and do not seem to have a territory, just like the Movo, who no longer have their own chiefdoms. But like the jaglavak, the Movo are feared for their power to harm. And by virtue of an ancient alliance, the jaglavak are believed to aid the Movo in times of trouble, including cleaning up their compounds by chasing out undesirable insects, because the jaglavak is commonly entrusted with chasing vermin out of infested dwellings.

Jaglavak to the rescue

The Mofu who sees his compound invaded by termites and ants calls on the jaglavak for help. Dorylus colonies are not easy to find. After identifying the nest or colony of jaglavak on the move, the Mofu removes from the colony several hundred to a thousand, or even more, Dorylus soldiers. He puts them into a calabash or new clay pot, sometimes in leaves of the large-leaved rock fig (Ficus abutilifolia). Among the Mofu, these leaves are used, for example, for wrapping sacred objects, rain stones, and the meat of the maray (the bull sacrificed at the feast of the massif).

They fear the jaglavak might kill them in the night, during their sleep, by entering their nostrils.

When the Mofu carrying the ants arrive at the compound, people salute the jaglavak in different ways, clicking their fingers or striking the head of a hoe with a stone. The head of the family declares, “Today we have a distinguished guest,” and then asks the jaglavak to chase out these harmful insects—such as the momok (a generic term for termites) and Trinervitermes ants from the straw of the roof, and Macrotermes subhyalinus termites from the sorghum stems protecting the walls—as well as snakes. They ask the jaglavak, however, not to touch people and to spare their animals, for they fear the jaglavak might kill them in the night, during their sleep, by entering their nostrils. Yet our informants were unable to cite any specific instances of such an act of aggression.

The Mofu put the jaglavak on the ground within an ocher circle from which extends a path, also traced in ocher, that leads toward the area of the most badly infested house. The Mofu admit that they do not see the jaglavak operate, but they claim that two or three weeks later, the harmful insects have disappeared, and the jaglavak as well, for they do not remain in the compound, unlike the gula ant (which the Kapsiki, another ethnic group of the Mandara Mountains, enlist for the same job).

One might wonder about the conduct of the Dorylus soldiers deprived of the mass effect of the colony. Do they disperse an odor that causes other insects to flee?

A waning tradition?

Jaglavak lore varies from massif to massif and depends on which clans are in or out of power. Today, however, for the Mofu who come down to the plains and go to work in urban areas, everything concerning insects, including the role of the jaglavak, is seen as belonging to the past.


above written by Christian Seignobos

November 20, 2007



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