The Sateré Mawé of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest must survive in a hostile environment filled with danger: poisonous plants, venomous snakes and insects, blood-thirsty predators, and warring neighboring tribes all share their jungle home. It is no wonder, then, that the Mawé revere the brave hunters and warriors amongst them. In this traditional society, children of all genders spend most of their time with their mothers and the other women of the group. When they come of age, they undergo a special ceremony to mark their transitions into adulthood; but, for Mawé boys, the ritual is exceptionally painful. Although some would argue that putting a boy, 12 or 13 years old, though a painful trial is cruel; on the contrary, the Mawé believe it would be cruel not to do so. They believe the initiation ceremony prepares young boys to become warriors by teaching them that they can withstand much more pain than they initially think they are capable of. And they use an unlikely source: the bullet ant.
The bullet ant got its name from entomologist Justin Schmidt, who likened their sting to actually being shot with a bullet. After experiencing first-hand the occupational hazards that come from handling stinging insects all day, Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, or SSPI. The SSPI is used by entomologists and scientists worldwide, and rates the intensity, pain, and effects of 78 different types of insect stings: from the mild fire ant bite, to the moderate bee sting, and all the way up to the excruciating pain of the bullet ant, which tops the list. Describing the pain a single bullet ant is capable of, Schmidt says, “[it’s] like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” When a boy becomes a man in the Mawé community, he must endure not just one, but a barrage of excruciating bullet ant stings in order to prove that he is worthy of warrior status.
When time comes, special mittens are woven from leaves, and the boys join some adults and the shaman in the jungle to gather the bullet ants. Less ant-like and more like giant, wingless wasps, bullet ants are aggressive and large, about 4 cm in length. To subdue them, the shaman blows smoke from a small fire onto the colony. Once collected, the ants are inserted, stinger first, into the gaps between the woven leaves on the mittens. Each mitten could contain dozens of bullet ants. When the smoke-sedation wears off, the ants realize they are trapped and unable to escape, and do the only thing they know how to do—try to sting their way to freedom. The boys must keep the torturous ant mittens on for at least ten minutes. The rest of the tribe sing and dance during the ordeal, but they surely offer little distraction to the young men who are forbidden to cry, wince, or writhe in agony. It is only when the boy can complete the trial without crying or showing any sign of pain is he considered a man. It can take more than twenty attempts. The real pain actually starts after the gloves are removed and the venom has had some time to work. Hands become swollen to the point of uselessness, shaking and paralyzed for days. The neurotoxin in the venom sends waves of pain down the boys’ bodies, and can even cause disorientation and hallucinations. Although the boys are in no true danger, the Mawé bullet ant ritual is one of the most excruciating and agonizing coming of age ceremonies left in the world today.