Hello everyone again. Caramuru here and as promised, here is great little article on the boys in our tribe and their trip to manhood. Don’t miss the video in the end.
Negotiating the transition from boy to man can be a tricky time in a guys life. The liminal period of maturation, known to scientists as puberty and to everyone else as hell, wages hormonal warfare on both the body and the mind. Limbs grow gangly and uncontrollable, skin breaks out, voices begin to scratch and squeak at all the wrong times (usually when talking to a girl), and both body odor and hair begin to appear in strange and sometimes unwanted places.
It’s just like bungee jumping. Except with vines. Credit: The Telegraph
Surviving that period of time should be more than enough to for a boy to be able to declare himself a man. But for some reason, in the most of the world, it’s not. In most cultures around the world boys must negotiate risky, dangerous, and often potentially life-threatening rites of passage in order to achieve manhood.
On Pentecost Island in the South Pacific they tie vines to their ankles and leap headfirst from wooden towers; among the Maasai of East Africa, boys make the transition to manhood by being circumcised with a sharp rock as teenagers; and in the highlands of New Guinea, a secret society determines when Sambia boys become men: a multi-year seven step process that culminates in the boy fathering his first child. These are dangerous, intricate rituals practiced for generations, but none are quite so painful, nor quite so seemingly masochistic as the Satere-Mawe’s bullet-ant glove.
The Satere-Mawe are an indigenous group who live deep in the Brazilian Amazon. For many years they were most well known for their great contribution to keeping students and teenagers awake all-night in a hyper-caffienated buzz: the Satere-Mawe were the first to domesticate the plant guarana, a stimulant found in energy drinks. But courtesy of YouTube they’ve been gaining fame for another reason – their painful initiation rituals.
But before we get into that, I’d like you to meet Dr Justin Schmidt.
Schmidt is an American entomologist and an expert in honey bee ecology, communication and behaviour.
But that’s not his greatest to contribution to science (although it’s pretty great). Over the course of his career, he’s spent a lot of time being bitten, stung, and envenomated by insects – an occupational hazard of the entomologist. Unlike most of us, who would curse a little and carry on (or change jobs), Schmidt played the good scientist and began to take notes on the experience.
After years of accidental, and painful, ‘research’, Schmidt eventually published two papers detailing the stings of 78 species of Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees, and sawflies). He reported both the immediate pain of the sting on a scale of 1-4, and the duration of the pain. Fire ants are level one, honey bees are level two. There are only three level fours: the warrior wasp, the tarantula hawk, and the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata).
Bullet ants, like aye-ayes and bilbies, are the only living members of their genuses. The bullet ant is between half-an-inch and an inch in length and looks like a black, wingless wasp. It lives in nests at the base of trees, and forages in the leaves overhead for small insects or arthropods, supplementing its diet with nectar. They range from Nicaragua to Paraguay, and have a number of colloquial names throughout their habitat, but one is common across all the countries the ant inhabits: the 24-hour ant. When agitated, the bullet ant stings, injecting venom into its unfortunate harasser. The venom contains a potent neurotoxin, poneratoxin, which blocks synaptic transmission at the injection site – fancy science for saying it freezes the transmission of information by nerve cells, causing paralysis. It also causes pain. “Waves of throbbing, burning pain which continues unabated for 24 hours.” Hence the name. Luckily, you’re not likely to stumble across one unless your an entomologist (or a primatologist) – or a Satere-Mawe boy.
Becoming a Satere-Mawe man involves getting up close and personal with the bullet ant. At the time of initiation, the group will locate a bullet ant nest and waft smoke over it to knock out the ants. The unconscious ants are collected, and carefully – I’m guessing very carefully – woven into a glove made of the leaves. The end result is a leafy green iron maiden. Shaped like an oven-mitt on the outside, the ants are embedded within the leaves with their stingers facing inwards. The man-to-be then slips the glove on, and must keep it on for ten minutes. At the end of ten minutes the glove is removed, although generally not by the boy, who is usually busy being paralysed and/or convulsing. The boy will generally recover within a week – but the ritual can be fatal. Unfortunately, even for the survivors, once is not enough to prove you are a man. The boys will have to repeat the process many times over months, or even years, before becoming accepted as a man in Satere-Mawe culture.
Meet the insect with the world’s most painful sting.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions about human behavior that extend accurately across all cultures. There is just too much diversity – a level of diversity and adaptability that make us unique as a species. But rites of passage are a virtual constant around the world, particularly for boys. It’s difficult to know why, but the most commonly posited reason is that boys lack an obvious physical change signalling their sexually maturation (as compared to girls, where in many cultures menarche is the line that demarcates girlhood from womanhood). Because there’s no obvious physical process, all around the world humans have come up with bizarre and dangerous ways for boys to prove that they are men. Whether its sticking your hand in a glove made of ants, bungee-jumping from vines, or being circumcised with a rock, we will go to ridiculous lengths to assert our masculinity.
And we wonder why women roll their eyes at us.
Text by Neil Griffin / Pictures by Local Newspapper “A Critica Manaus”