The Satere Mawe Tribe calls the Brazilian Amazon home and has minimal contact with the outside world. The tribe has been able to preserve many ancient traditions, including the coming-of-age initiation for the young boys of the tribe. At age 13, the boys of the Satere Mawe Tribe become men but must prove their worth through the initiation ceremony. The boys head off into the jungle to harvest the angry bullet ants. One sting from the inch-long ant is said to be 30-times more painful than a bee sting, or about as painful as a gunshot, giving them their name. Back in the village, the chief elder intoxicates the ants in an herbal mixture, knocking them out just long enough to weave them into a special pair of gloves, with the stingers pointing inwards.
When the ants wake up, the ceremony begins. The boys show courage by placing their hands in the gloves for 10 minutes each while being led in a traditional dance. The ceremony repeats 19 more times before the young boys can call themselves men. According to the Satere Mawe traditions, the bullet ant initiation prepares them for the pain of adulthood and how to manage pain without showing weakness.
The name “Sateré-Mawé” comes from Sateré, meaning “caterpillar of fire”, and Mawé, meaning “intelligent and curious parrot”.
They are also called Maué, Mawé, Mabue, Maragua, Sataré, Andira, Arapium.
The Mawé speak the Sateré-Mawé language, which belongs to the Tupian family. A grammar book was developed for the language in 1986.
The Sateré-Mawé people intentionally use bullet ant stings as part of their initiation rites to become a warrior. The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural sedative and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made out of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), stinger facing inward. When the ants regain consciousness, the boy slips the glove onto his hand.
The goal of this initiation rite is to keep the glove on for a full five minutes. When finished, the boy’s hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed due to the ant venom. In addition to suffering intense pain, he may hallucinate and shake uncontrollably for days.
The only “protection” provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months.