To be seen as a true tribal warrior each man must endure hundreds of stings while wearing gloves filled with bullet ants for 10 minutes.
One of the most unusual rites of passage is the bullet ant initiation rite of the Sateré-Mawé, an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. The rite is a coming-of-age passage for boys when they become men. They must withstand being stung by bullet ants that are placed inside gloves and are worn up to 20 times. The bullet ant is at the top of the Schmidt sting pain index, a scale created by Justin Schmidt that rates pain caused by different hymenopteran stings. The ant’s sting is 30 times more severe than a bee sting and is said to be as agonizing as being shot by a bullet.
In preparation for the rite, tribal elders collect bullet ants from the Amazon jungle. The tribe’s medicine man places the ants in an herbal solution that is a natural sedative. Once the ants have been sedated, they are then placed stinger first into gloves woven from leaves. As the sedative wears off, the ants become increasingly agitated and are ready to sting. The boy’s initiation begins when they put on the gloves and allow the ants to sting for 10 minutes. The boys’ agony is unbearable and the medicine man leads them in a dance to distract them from their pain.
According to Sateré-Mawé legend, the rite of passage proves their worthiness to take on adult roles. To complete the initiation, the boys must endure this ordeal up to 20 times over several months or years. They must endure the pain without crying.
Rite participants have said the real pain begins once the gloves are removed and the venom takes effect. As the pain increases, their hands and forearms are temporarily paralyzed by the ant venom. The only protection provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, which confuses the ants and inhibits stinging.