Himalayan Journal vol.04
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.04

Publication year:
1932

Editor:
Kenneth Mason
Index
  1. ON ANCIENT TRACKS PAST THE PAMIRS
    (SIR AUREL STEIN)
  2. THE FIRST ASCENT OF KAMET
    (CAPTAIN E. ST. J. BIRNIE)
  3. AN EXPLORATION OF THE ARWA VALLEY, BRITISH
    (CAPTAIN E. ST. J. BIRNIE)
  4. MY EXPEDITION IN THE EASTERN KARAKORAM, 1930
    (Professor GIOTTO DAINELLI)
  5. SKI-ING IN THE HIGH EASTERN HIMALAYA
    (ULRICH WIELAND ?)
  6. BY SHONTHAR GALI TO RAMA, ASTOR
    (CAPTAIN J. BARRON)
  7. THE SHYOK ICE-BARRIER IN 1931
    (CAPTAIN C. E. C. GREGORY)
  8. A FRONTIER TOUR
    (LIEUT-COLONEL J. R. C. GANNON)
  9. HIGH ALTITUDE AND OXYGEN
    (N. E. ODELL)
  10. SUB-HIMALAYAN DIETETICS
    (Dr. C. STRICKLAND)
  11. THE TSARAP VALLEY, EASTERN LAHUL
    (LIBUT.-COLONISI, C. H. STOCKLEY)
  12. PEAKS AND PASSES OF THE T'lEN SHAN
    (Lieut-Colonel R. C. F. SCHOMBERG)
  13. THE FIGHT FOR KANGCHENJUNGA, 1931
    (PAUL BAUER)
  14. Lhonak, 1930
    (G. B. GOURLAY)
  15. A Journey in Upper Kumaun and Garhwal
    (Lieutenant HUGH ROSE)
  16. Expeditions
  17. In memorium
  18. Notes
  19. Reviews
  20. Correspondence
  21. Club Proceedings

SUB-HIMALAYAN DIETETICS

Dr. C. STRICKLAND

IN THE Fauna of British India, Vol. I (Distant, 1902), is to be found a record, attributed to O'Gorman of the I.M.S., regarding a certain bug rejoicing in the scientific name of Aspongopus nepalensis Westwood (1837), to the effect that there are some natives of Assam who are accustomed to eat the creature pounded up with their rice. This report is referred to by Maxwell Lefroy in 1909, who says that probably the insect gives "a powerful aromatic flavour " to the diet of the natives. Any drabness in the diet would doubtless be at least neutralized.

As most bugs-the word is used in a zoological, not in a Himalayan Club or heretical sense-are provided with a secretion that leads one to believe them to be devoid of a sense of smell, a secretion that has for instance led to some representatives being given the name of ' Bengal violets ', one can well believe that the curry of the indigenes must derive a flavour, though to describe it as aromatic appears to be somewhat of a euphemism, and one might as well conversely refer to the subtle scents of freesias and frangipane along the Riviera as hemipterine.

In the matter of scents and flavours I have had an interesting note on the point from Mr. Furze, the Inspector of Police and Political Officer of the Sadiya Frontier Tract, who sets up a rival to the aromatic flavour theory in forwarding the statement that the ' heart' of these bugs when tasted is very hot, like chillies. But there is one other possible reason why the aboriginals use this creature as a sambal to their curry, for apparently the insect's popular name is the ' cinnamon beetle'. This fact may indeed have been the origin of the custom among less-favoured mortals of using the spice cinnamon in their curry, because the proper article, the beetle, was, with the growth of civilization, not procurable.

I have been unable to find out whether O'Gorman pursued his subject further, and the matter lay apparently unnoticed until Dr. O'Connor of Upper Assam sent me on the 10th February 1930 some of the reputed beetles, with the following note:

" I send herewith a beetle which was found in one of the Assam Frontier Tracts. It lives under large stones in the Lohit river and appears to be of an edible type. The Mishmis eat it, but before doing so they remove two little red bags which they say contain poison. These bags appear to lie between the thorax and abdomen. On mentioning this matter to a gentleman, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, he informed me that he knew of it and that if perchance the natives forget to extract the poison glands they get paralysis of the neck, from which they inevitably die ". These bugs turned out to be Aspongopus chinensis Dall (1851), a first cousin of the A. nepalensis mentioned above, but one apparently equally acceptable to the gourmets of Assam.

Since that record, Dr. Hutton, i.c.s., lately Deputy Commissioner, Naga Hills, has kindly sent me the following information on the subject: " Nagas eat a species of wood-bug, brown and malodorous, which they normally search out from under the stones of riverbeds, but which are sometimes taken in huge flights. I have seen a cane-bridge covered with them and their pursuers. I have not heard of the paralysis that follows a meal off the wrong kind, but am making enquiries and will get specimens if they can be tracked down.

" I append a list of some other unusual food-stuffs which occur to me off-hand. There must be many others : Large green and grey spiders ; a species of large, smooth, black and yellow caterpillar found in colonies at the tops of trees; dragon-flies ; stag-beetle and hornet grubs ; winged termites ; big grasshoppers; water-snails ; water- boatmen (I think when taken along with other water besticles); large tree-frogs and their roe ; rock pythons, hamadryads and probably other big snakes ".

Dr. Hutton has also sent me this further information: " I am very sorry not to have let you have any news as to the paralysifie bug, but I am writing again to see if my friends in the Naga Hills have found out anything. Earthworms and leeches are definitely not eaten, but I had a friend across the border who made a self- glorious practice of experimenting in every sort of animal and insect food. I know that he tried earthworms and pronounced them uninteresting. I do not know whether he sampled leeches or not, but he killed himself in the end, it was reported, by eating some species, of snake ".

Regarding annelids in general as articles of diet, Professor Moore, of Pennsylvania University, recently in Calcutta, has told me that he has seen Italian railway-labourers make soup of earthworms: he believed, however, that spaghetti had no zoological connexions! As for leeches, Dr. Domenicone of Calcutta tells me that certain Nepalis have a custom of picking up these annelids engorged on the blood of animals and frying them like sausages, though Colonel Weir, Political Officer of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, had never heard of any such report.

Mr. Mills, Dr. Hutton's successor as administrator of the Naga Hills, has subsequently told me that " there are no tribes in these hills who extract the poison-glands from bugs. . . Mr. Needham of Upper Assam however tells me that the Abors and Miris on the north bank of the Brahmaputra eat a certain beetle which they find under stones. Before eating it they extract a small red gland from the neck in the belief that if eaten this gland affects the brain

On my pursuing the matter further Mr. Furze, the Political Officer of the Sadiya Frontier Tract, has sent me much interesting information. He writes: " Abors, Mishmis and some Nagas eat insects, the Mishmis in great variety, the Abors and the Nagas being more selective. It would take a long time to list the varieties eaten. I certainly recollect hearing a well-authenticated tale of a beetle eaten by some hill-tribes, which is believed to cause paralysis, but I cannot remember what tribe it was .... Abor witch-doctors frequently concoct healing balms and medicines from insects as well as from herbs ". Mr. Furze also mentions slugs and beetles as being eaten as delicacies or for ack of other food. The latter is probably the compelling cause with the Mishmis, as they live in a precipitous country where the supply of other food is at a discount.

My final source of information has been Mr. Dundas, late Ins- pector-General of Police, Assam, who sent me on the 12th January 1931 the following note : " The only insect I know of as being eaten alive by hill-people is that flat one found under stones and boulders in the river-beds. People not accustomed to eating it are apt to get violently sick, as some of our coolies did at Nizamghat at the time of the Debang survey in 1911. I never heard, however, that any were paralysed ".

On this Mr. Furze commented on the 4th February as follows : " The flat insect referred to by Mr. Dundas is, as far as I know, a ' cinnamon beetle It is known in the Abor language as tare, and has, in an internal part, near the head, a small red spot which is said to be very poisonous and to cause madness. All hill-tribes known to me eat this beetle turning over the boulders in dry river-beds to find them, but up here I have never heard of paralysis resulting from eating them, though symptoms of poisoning result if they be eaten by individuals not so accustomed ... As regards the paralysis business, I am writing to one more fellow ... I am sure that I have heard of this and probably in respect of some Kuki tribe ".

I am much indebted to Mr. Furze for a collection of some of these bugs, with which I have made the experiments described below. In forwarding them, Mr. Furze wrote: " If you open up the body of one of these you will find that the heart-or what the Abors consider to be the heart-of the insect is bright red ... It is said that if this heart be applied to the skin for a short period a painful rash results. The heart itself is very hot, rather like chillies, to the taste. This is Abor information and I have not tried any experiments myself ! Some Abors say that occasionally an exceptional beetle (' one with a spirit') is eaten, which causes the unfortunate one who has indulged to experience all the symptoms of paralysis, but that this occurs very rarely

Now the beliefs and superstitions recounted above have been the subject of a few experiments carried out at the School of Tropical Medicine at Calcutta, utilizing the ample material so kindly sent me by Mr. Furze.

In the first place, the so-called poison-gland, alias the heart, was found to be the stink-gland, a scarlet bilobed median sac lying between the thorax and abdomen. One can easily demonstrate the sac on the ventral aspect of the creature by fracturing the insect at the joint between the divisions. However, to remove it without unduly spilling its reputedly poisonous contents on to the succulent fat and flesh beneath would seem to present some difficulty, and one can only wonder how the natives do it.

The bug may be paralytic to man, but it is not so to monkeys, as we found that the organs of five insects produced no effect on either of two monkeys. Nor was there any effect noticed on the normal functions of respiration and the heart action of Calcutta cats on which the gland-contents were tried ; but probably nothing would kill them !

As for the reputed action of the secretion on the skin, I could obtain no evidence of there being any. Not only was the juice direct from the gland smeared on the arm of a volunteer, but an alcoholic extract of numerous bugs was also tried. There was no reaction or sensation whatever to the person experimented upon. Not even the whole gland, when dissected out and bound to the skin, did any harm.

We are compelled to conclude then that, in spite of the popular belief to the contrary, the stink-gland, alias the heart, has none of the properties attributed to it, and it only remains for the origin of the idea to be surmised by ethnologists. There is also the question whether the theory that only those who unluckily pick on "an exceptional beetle with a spirit " become afflicted by a palsy is any the more correct.

So much for the bonnes-bouches of the Himalayan hills of which I have had reports, while our Honorary Editor informs me that in China they eat fried cockroaches and new-born mice in honey-but that is in China. It is in another category that one may, in concluding, mention the boat-loads of pie-dogs, ravished by the Miris from the tea-gardens of the plains and transported into the hills up streams such as the Subansiri, to undergo their apotheosis to dog-pie.

In sum, therefore, members of the Himalayan Club, travelling in the hills, can be reassured that if the worst ever befall their commissariat, they can for a while lead a Swiss Family Robinson existence.