Rebellion in the Undergrowth: How humans and ants have more in common than you’d think.

Every summer in the heart of North America, hidden battles are taking place amongst the undergrowth. After a year of preparation, the attack begins and a series of bloody and brutal events unfold. Phase One: The invasion of a kingdom, the killing of a queen, and the expulsion of all that remain who wish to live. Phase Two: The kidnapping of the abandoned babies, taking them from the safety of their homes and forcing them into a life of servitude in a foreign empire. Then later, the Final Phase: The uprising of the braver captives, sick of a life of slavery, slaughtering the brood they were forced to nurture and escaping from their captures.

 

Sounds like a scene straight out of an episode of Game of Thrones, doesn’t it.

Actually, this scene is straight from the tortured existence of one of our planets smallest, more overlooked species – the ant.

 

The life of the Temnothorax ant is not an easy one. As the weather warms up, the ants await the invasion of their homes by a larger, more aggressive ant, Protomognathus americanus – a species that has learnt that life is much more relaxed when you can force someone else to feed you, keep your house tidy and raise your children.

However, what they haven’t learnt is that Temnothorax doesn’t particularly like being forced into this work, and will eventually rebel against their oppressors. In most cases, the slave ants will just stop feeding and caring for their persecutors offspring, but in other more gruesome instances they will storm through their underground prison and violently dismember the young in a brutal game of tug-of-war. Rebellion is so common that up to 60% of all young that are raised by Temnothorax will ultimately die from neglect or abuse.

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Just like ants, this battle between power and equality can be seen throughout human history. From the fleeing of the early Hebrews from Egypt, to the uprising of African slaves from their masters, humans have fought and sacrificed for their freedom. There are so many instances of human revolution spattered across time that editing this blog post down to only a few stories is actually making me all sweaty and anxious. I want to talk about them all!

But one of the cases of rebellion I found the most intriguing occurred in France. Centuries before the French Revolution, the people of France were still very much stuck in the dark ages. Ruled by an unwavering monarchy and a corrupt Catholic Church, the rural peasants of France were suffocating under the iron fist of divine rule. With ever increasing taxes from the Church, the peasants were falling deep into poverty and debt, and suffering from eviction, land confiscation, malnutrition and early death. Looking upon the upper Church officials, who lived a life of lavish decadence and cared little for the plight of the people below them, the peasants became increasingly frustrated and restless. As they lost their faith, so began a secret war against the Church and its values, a rebellion that took place under the cover of darkness in the countries forest and mountainous areas.

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By the 13th century hundreds of thousands of Frances rural-poor began practicing witchcraft.

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Over the next few centuries, the popularity of the ‘anti-church’ continued to grow. In the dead of night witches set fire to the crops of the countries elite, maimed their cattle and destroyed their property. It was at this point that the Catholic Church took notice and publicly condemned the behaviour of the ‘devil-worshiping, cannibalistic cult’ that was wreaking havoc on their land, and decided to fight back. And they fought back hard, with a good-old-fashioned witch-hunt. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, over 6,000 French peasants are believed to have been accused of witchcraft and publicly executed through drowning or burning at the stake.

Although the practice of witchcraft eventually fizzled out, it was responsible in a change of the peasants mind-set in that they didn’t have to settle for such terrible treatment, ultimately leading on to the more successful French Revolution.

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Although human rebellion can lead to social and cultural advancements within a society, it has also been known to lead to the destruction of human civilisations. Take fore example the fall of the Mayan empire.  Once a powerful and dominant force that spread across Mexico and Central America, the Mayans population size was rapidly expanding. To feed their people, the Mayan rulers relied heavily on deforestation to clear space to grow ample amounts of corn to keep the population happy. Over time, the surrounding forests were completely destroyed. Cue a massive drought, and all their hard work went to waste as the crops began to fail and the reservoirs dried out, leaving the people without food and water. Unsurprisingly, thirst and hunger tend to make people a bit angry, and the Mayans began to point the blame at their leaders. How could they destroy our forests, allow our crops to fail and leave us with no water to drink? Through the recent discovery of mass graves filled with skeletons with jade inlays in their teeth (worn only by the Mayan elite), researchers believe that what followed was a mass uprising throughout the Mayan area, where peasants slaughtered their leaders and ultimately succumbed to hunger, leaving behind the ruins to remind us of their once prosperous existence.

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Mayan ruins in Cancun, Mexico.

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Looking throughout history there seems to be a strong pattern where people object to any kind of wrong-doing against them, even if this process of objection ends up causing harm. But if mutiny can so often lead to pain and death, why is it so ingrained in our nature? If you found yourself under a ruling order that kept you in crushing servitude, would you rebel against it for a chance at a better life? Or would you just quietly accept your fate for a chance of survival? Isn’t survival more important than freedom?

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Ultimately, why do we rebel?

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Well, like most things in life we can look back upon our ancestors for the answers. And it seems like unruly rebellion is an innate behaviour we’ve inherited from them. For hundreds of thousands of years, back when we were living the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, our ancestors lived in small, egalitarian groups. Politics and hierarchy weren’t yet a thing, and members of the group were all considered equals, regardless of gender or age.

 

Sounds amazing right? Why the hell did all that change?

Well, we can thank the rise of agriculture for that. Roughly 10,000 years ago, in a time period known as the Neolithic Revolution, a major shift between hunting and gathering to farming occurred, and those that had the knack for it were able to collect far more resources than were previously obtainable. Those that shared their extra resources with those less fortunate began to find themselves in a position of power, as people became dependent on them. People were no longer so equal.

Due to the unmovable nature of farming, people gave up their nomadic lifestyles and began to settle in much larger groups. As the number of people grew, farming became more organised, resulting in less available land, and leadership was suddenly needed to determine the distribution of resources amongst the community. Those with new found power stepped up.

Over this series of events, humans found themselves living in large communities that had drastically departed from their original social arrangements. But still, that desire for equality and fairness from our past is deeply rooted into our psyche.

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Today, if we feel that those who are in power are not honouring our basic rights as humans, this primal need for fairness boils up inside us, causing us to stand up and fight against the system that our ancestors found themselves in.

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So there you have it, rebellion is a fundamental part of who we are. Channel your inner spirit animal, the ant, and go make a change!

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