Brazil's Sateré-Mawé Tribe's Painful Tradition To Mark A Boy's Coming Of Age

If you thought bee stings were bad, just wait until you hear about bullet ants. These squirmy little insects are more powerful than they look: though their stings aren't fatal, they're considered some of the most painful animal bites on the planet (via How Stuff Works). Found in areas ranging from Central America through the Amazon, according to Anywhere, bullet ants developed their painful sting as a defensive tool to protect themselves against large predators (via Western Exterminator).

If you're not a fan of the creepy-crawlies, you might think these insects sound like something to be avoided at all costs. But in fact, there are certain groups of people who don't just regularly encounter bullet ants: they deliberately expose themselves to large numbers of the bullet ant stings (via All That's Interesting). This is the Sateré-Mawé tribe of Brazil, an indigenous tribe with many unique traditions (via PIB), including a coming-of-age ritual in which young boys are repeatedly exposed to bullet ant stings.

Traditions of the Sateré-Mawé tribe

The Sateré-Mawé tribe is composed of a relatively small group of individuals, with most recent population estimates suggesting there are just over 13,000 members of the tribe (via PIB). With their land located along the Amazon river, the Sateré-Mawé live in a quite rural area with relatively basic furnishings. Among other things, the tribe is known for growing a plant called the guaraná, which can be used in drinks. 

And, of course, their coming-of-age ritual is famous worldwide. In the ritual, boys 12 years old and up have to face the sting of the bullet ant (via Smithsonian Magazine). In a very unique process, bullet ants are actually paralyzed and then embedded into a sort of glove which puts the wearer's hand in direct contact with bullet ant stingers (via All That's Interesting). Boys are heavily involved in the process of creating these gloves, even venturing into the forest to collect the stinging ants in anticipation of the ritual. People of the tribe coax the ants out of their hiding places by tapping on tree logs and using smoke (via Discovery UK). Later, the tribe comes together to anesthetize the ants, with the men of the tribe inserting the ants into gloves made of palm leaves.

The ritual

Once the ants have woken, it is time for the ritual. Beforehand, boys are prepped with streaks of paint across their faces (via Discovery UK). With over a hundred ants in each glove, boys must place their hands in the gloves for up to ten minutes at a time (via Smithsonian Magazine).

The experience must be excruciating: one entomologist described a bullet ant sting as "like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel," (via Business Insider.) But despite the pain, those who endure the ritual don't spend it lying in the ground in pain. Instead, they continue moving around, even dancing, according to Discovery UK. The total time of the ritual, from the beginning of the ant-gathering to when the gloves are removed, can take up to 11 hours, according to National Geographic. Even once the ritual is technically over, the boys aren't necessarily free of pain: they can experience side effects, including paralysis of the hands, for over a day. And they'll have to experience the ritual more than once, too. Boys must wear the gloves up to 20 times as part of their coming-of-age.

According to tribe leaders, enduring pain gives boys greater perspective. "If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won't be worth anything," one chief said, according to National Geographic.

Other unique coming-of-age rituals

The Sateré-Mawé tribe's coming-of-age ritual might be especially painful, but it's far from the only unique tradition in the world. In fact, there are dozens of coming-of-age rituals all over the world which outside cultures might deem strange. 

For instance, in Ethiopia, young boys have to jump over a line of dung-covered cattle –- and while naked to boot –- in order to prove their worth as men (via The Science Explorer). Across the world in Indonesia, teenage girls sometimes get their front teeth and canines filed down until they are flat to ensure they remain morally strong adults (via India Times). And in the United States, Amish individuals undergo a process called Rumspringa in which they take a year to completely eschew the rules of their faith and live as the average person does. Afterwards, they get to determine if they want to return to the Amish church or not (via News24).

One thing's for sure: though coming-of-age traditions might not be universal, the fact that there are coming-of-age rituals is pretty widespread. And, hey, the next time your son complains about how much puberty sucks, you can tell him: "At least you don't have to stick your hands in gloves of bullet ants!"