Friday, October 13, 2006

Tobacco versus the Ants

This blog was inspired by one written by Mr. Roth on the subject of the efficacy of Anglo-Saxon medicine. I decided to look up the old sixteenth and seventeenth century texts on Mesoamerican medicine and folk remedies that predated the Spaniards to see if there was anything that had a modern counterpart that worked. I immediately got distracted by one source in particular, the excitable Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon and his Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1629 translated and edited by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig.

I haven't really read enough books like Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies or know enough biomedicine to know what works and what doesn't. There are a few such glossaries of old Prehispanic remedies but they rarely appear to be written or edited by someone with the combined knowledge of the texts and biochemistry to give the lay reader a fair chance of knowing what modern medicines may actually match up. In fact, as the author Joie Davidow of that volume suggests, much of Sahagun's previous work on herbal remedies was suppressed after his run-in with the Inquisition with the result that much of that early information was lost to us.

Alarcon, because he was an enthusiastic pursuer of continuing native "idolatry" in his role as a priest, and later, I believe, as an inquisitor himself, had a manuscript that survived mostly intact with examples of native remedies and incantations. I don't know too much about him otherwise, although I had actually heard of his more famous brother, a certain Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, a famous playright in Spain.

While there is some dark fascination with reading Alarcon's dramatic text filled as it is with contempt for the unfortunate locals he is catching at idolatry, I will focus on the parts about the ants. Specifically, about ways to kill ants.

It turns out that despite Alarcon's general skepticism of the "heathen superstitions", this is one case in which the methods are actually proven.

Chapter 13, titled, Against Ants proves particularly instructive.

It's very short, so I will quote Alarcon entirely and sum up the incantations below.

Alarcon's text:
In another Treatise I mentioned a certain Martin de Luna, a native of Temimiltzinco, in the Amilpas, who was one hundred and ten years old, and was held in high repute and to be of consummate wisdom among the Indians. I think that he had gained this reputation with these infernal spells, as will be seen in this and in other Treatises, where I will quote him for his evil skills. He used to use the preceding incantation or exorcism against coatis and the one that follows against ants. I came to know the latter from Captain Pedro de Ochoa, an inhabitant of the Amilpas. After I had gotten my hands on the incantation and on Martin de Luna, who was arrested on account of this superstition, he denied it, even though it was proved against him, and he had on other occasions fallen into prison for these causes and had been convicted, he denied it stubbornly, until I began his wicked and superstitious incantation, which is:

[here I just summarize a bit of what the incantation says, it's by no means academic, so don't hold it against Andrews and Hassig's scholarship! PB]

Incantation 1:
He threatens the ants, telling them to respect the sown field and to either tear down their ant hill or regret it.

Alarcon's text:
With this he claimed that the ants would not again do harm to the grove or the sown field. But if at times they overstepped, not showing they had understood, in that case he carried out his threat, going ahead with the destruction of their house, which he also did by conjuring a certain quantity of water and throwing it on the anthill and sprinkling the outer edge and circumference of the anthill with his so-venerated pisiete [tobacco]. And in order to conjure the water he used the following words:

Incantation 2:
He invokes Chalchiuhcueyeh (water goddess) and tells her to destroy the ants and their anthill.

Alarcon's text:
Having made this incantation, he used to pour one or two pitchers of conjured water into the mouth and entrance of the anthill where earlier he had spread his venerated pisiete. And with this he claimed that either the anthill would totally collapse or the ants would move their dwelling very far from there. For an infallible effect (in his judgement) he conjures the pisiete also, saying:

Incantation 3: [This one is cool, so I am including Andrews and Hassig's translation and the Nahuatl. PB]

Let it be soon! Green Priest, Turquoise-flutterer [i.e. tobacco], what is he doing? Go in order to pursue the person from Popotlan [i.e. the ants].

Tla cuel! Xoxouhqui Tlamacazqui, Xiuhpahpatlantzin, tleh axticah? Tla xocontohtocati in Popotecatl.

The End (of Manuel de Luna, that is). Poor old guy. His method of using tobacco water as an anticide turns out to have a modern scientific basis!

It turns out that Tobacco is known as an effective insecticide. And furthermore, the use of Tobacco infused water is recognized as an "organic" insecticide, see wiki's Tobacco water entry.

So ants hate tobacco for a good reason. Nicotine is a neurotoxin that is deadly to them (and the arachnids, like scorpions). Smoking it only gets one a tiny dose whereas eating it can prove deadly (well, if you manage to absorb it properly) so it's really not a good idea to use it when you have curious pets who might eat anything. Of course, caffeine is also a pesticide and I consume it daily. Oops.

Ants avoid nicotine so much that they apparently also avoid some types of caterpillars that have eaten it. See this interesting journal article on the subject here where Argentine ants apparently avoid eating larvae that have consumed tobacco leaves.

All this ant-killing talk reminds me of a somewhat un-PC short story favorite of mine, Leiningen versus the Ants, an epic tale of one man's determined battle against brazilian army ants. Here's the wiki summary of the story here and here's the full text of Leiningen versus the Ants. It's very short and worth a quick look.

In the story Leiningen is a doesn't say of what, but we can safely say it wasn't tobacco!

Some years ago a terrible movie was made of brazilian army ants and their hypothetical invasion of Canada. It was so terrible I couldn't continue watching it after the first honeymooning couple bought it while exploring the giant curious large earthen mound (read, anthill) in the woods.

But I digress.

So there you have it, a Prehispanic anticide that actually works. Since tobacco is a New World plant and one whose chemical properties were not isolated or studied for several centuries after the Spanish Conquest, Alarcon's mention of Tobacco water for use as an insecticide may well be the first mention of its special properties. It's certainly something for future research.

Perhaps next time I will deal with Sahagun's tar/bitumen for skin ailments remedy and its link to the modern tar-based dandruff shampoos. Or not...dandruff isn't as exciting as ants.