Saturday, May 25, 2013

Michel Peissel's "The Ants' Gold": Book Review

Herodotus popularized what many sought in vain: "gold-digging ants" somewhere near the Himalayas in the northern Indian or western Tibetan reaches. Intrigued by this mention, Himalayan explorer and Tibetan expert Peissel seeks the answer that scholarship fails to provide. He travels in 1980 to the India-Pakistan forbidden zone along the cease-fire line in the endless Kashmir dispute. 

He takes, to my befuddlement, a Harvard director of graduate admissions, Missy--who needs leg braces and cannot navigate well by horse or foot the screes and slopes. In this landscape which soothes more the soul than the eye, its barren ten-thousand-foot expanses delight Michel. He returns as in other books (see my recent reviews of "Lords and Lamas" in Bhutan, "Tibetan Pilgrimage" and "Mustang") to a place that compels him. He feels as if descended from its people, so close does he resemble his companion there, with Caucasian long nose and grey eyes and features more European than Asian, and a temperament more excitable and enthusiastic, recalling his own French heritage. 

This may not be so far-fetched, if Peissel's theory is true. He posits that the Minaro people here are the "Dards" credited by the ancients with the realm of the ants and the gold. He also reasons that their ibex hunts, rock art, and customs link them to Neolithic inhabitants they may be descended from or may have supplanted. They survive as the last remnant of (now archaically Tibetan-speaking but) pre-Tibetan peoples pushed by warlords who took control from farmers, into terrain where they stayed independent of imperialism, technology, and kings. In turn they by dolmens, matriarchal rule, a maternal goddess-oriented "religion of man," and vestiges of a non-hierarchical agricultural and nomadic life, may exhibit as proto-Aryans the long-fabled "Aryan" heartland which has beckoned for many European scholars. Of course, this has been controversial and continues to be so now.

His travels, increasingly surreptitious as the Indian bureaucrats and military repel his entreaties to study the Minaro and the Baltistan and Zanskar homelands, prove intriguing, given the inherent interest of this topic for me. His account of twelve hours in darkness trekking in terrifying heights so as to penetrate the closed-off frontier India guards is gripping, and he knows how to keep you turning the pages. I will leave it to you to learn how Peissel solves the ants' identity. He loves this subject of "the discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas," and he convinces you of its importance to him and to academia.

But, given the limits of his conversations (his colloquial Tibetan differs from the Indo-European dialect the Minaro preserve), contacts with everyday people there as his visits keep getting truncated by India, and his Moses-like glimpse of the promised land of the ants' gold he cannot enter, the results, however readable, remain despite what he reports as eventually four years of research compiled from among the Minaro, still elusive. Fittingly if frustratingly so for this mystery, perhaps. (2-1-13 to Amazon US)

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