Remember the gut wrenching scene from Apocalypto, where Jaguar Paw’s wife uses ants’ pincers as sutures on her young son? Turns out it was inspired by a real medical treatment used in part of Asia, Africa and South America.
According to survival expert Cody Lundin, who starred on the Discovery reality show Dual Survival, army ants – soldiers that guard the rest of the colony – are known for their whopper mandibles. “I know that in ancient China, they were used as sutures by a lot of native peoples,” he explained on the show. “Take it on both sides of your wound and it’s going to clamp down on your flesh, and when you pinch off the body, it will hold that wound shut. Once they bite on, they don’t let go. You can physically pull their body away from their head, and they will stay embedded in the flesh.”
VICE Motherboard magazine recently published a feature on ant stitches, confirming that ants were used for medical purposes at one time. Daniel Kronauer, biologist and head of the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior at Rockefeller University, told Motherboard writer Jordan Pearson: “I have heard reports of East African tribal peoples using Dorylus soldiers as sutures (at least traditionally), and the same applies to South American indigenous peoples and the soldiers of Eciton army ants. Apparently the head of the ant is snapped off the rest of the body once it is attached.”
“I’m not aware of the drawbacks or risks, other than the obvious that you might be concerned about hygienic standards,” he added.
The late biologist Eugene Willis Gudger did indeed confirm that ant mandibles were used as natural sutures; in fact, they’re even mentioned in medical literature found in Hindu texts dating back to approximately 1,000 B.C. Gudger also found that the practice had spread to Asia Minor and Europe.
“One account from 1896 in Smyrna, Asia Minor, described the application of ten living ants to a one-inch wound of the scalp by a Greek barber who handled the ants, approximately three-eighths of an inch long, with tweezers,” Gudger wrote. “Once their jaws were firmly affixed to the wound he snipped off the bodies with scissors. The retained mandibles were removed after three days, when favorable healing was established.”
Entomologist Grzegorz Buczkowski, from the Urban Ecology Laboratory, however, isn’t convinced. “As an entomologist, I can tell you that the ant mandibles will pinch the skin and could technically help close a wound,” he told Jordan. “But from a medical perspective, I think this is completely bogus. It’s not going to work the same way as a proper medical treatment. And it could cause other problems like infection since ants are not sterile. Overall, I would not recommend this.”
Would you be willing to try ant mandible sutures in a dire emergency?