(Image: Tad Arensmeier, cc-sa-3.0)
There’s no real in-between when it comes to snake. Either you love them or you hate them – and usually, the people who hate them, really, truly, absolutely and unconditionally hate them. From antiquity to the modern day, few animals have evoked such widespread terror and fascination as the serpent, and in this article we’re going to examine just why that is.
On the hunt for ancient tropical river monsters, paleontologists were stunned when they discovered the fossilized remains of a creature that was more like something out of monster movie than our actual history. They called it Titanoboa, for good reason. The snake was somewhere around 14 meters long (50 feet), and weighed somewhere around a ton – and that’s more than twice the size of the biggest snake we’ve discovered living today.
(Image: Ryan Quick, cc-4.0)
The snake was related to today’s boa constrictors, and killed its prey by crushing it at a rate of about 400 pounds per square inch – that’s like being trapped under the weight of 3 Eiffel Towers.
The snake, which lived around about 58 million years ago, shared its domain with other massive reptiles, including huge, prehistoric versions of a crocodile and of a turtle. Discovered in the tropical forests of northern Columbia, the fossils were uncovered in part during massive coal mining operations that are – perhaps inconveniently – taking place in the same location as a treasure trove of fossilized remains. At the time Titanoboa crawled the jungle floors, the area got about twice as much rainfall as it does today, was considerably hotter, and even the trees were bigger.
Even more incredible than the body of Titanoboa was the head. Snake heads are rarely preserved for any amount of time; once the snake dies, the weak connective tissues that allow the animal to open its mouth so wide in life and its delicate bone structure means that it’s often the first part of the skeleton to disappear. The bones that have been slowly and painstakingly assembled paint the picture of a creature at home in the water, swimming through the swift-moving river currents…. and preying on everything. Based on its skull and teeth, it was at the top of the food chain – even above crocodiles, which it could easily kill and eat. For at least 10 million years, the Titanoboa was the dominant predator of the rain forest.
9. Ancient Snake Bite Remedies
The idea of getting bit by a venomous snake is terrifying, and always has been. We’ve always known that the bite of some snakes can be potentially deadly, and, according to Pliny the Elder, the bite of the cobra was always deadly. While there were remedies and antidotes for other types of snakes, the only thing left to do if you were bitten by a cobra was to die.
(Image: Pavan Kumar N, cc-sa-3.0)
The antidotes themselves were pretty diverse, and one of the most common ones – sucking the poison out of the wound – is still occasionally used, and can be deadly to the person performing it, especially if they have sores or cuts in their mouth. In ancient Rome, the well-known practice of sucking out the venom gave way to another belief about how to cure snake bites. When Cato campaigned in North Africa, his army was plagued by snake bites, until some of the local Psylli joined the Romans and took on the role of healers. The Psylli were thought to have saliva with anti-venomous properties, and it became a commodity.
Some of the ancient cures seem bizarre by today’s standard, and involve seemingly everything from eating dried weasel to biting the snake that bit you. And, if you can’t do that, says the ancient Ayurvedic treatment for snake bites, bite a “clod of earth” instead.
Venom itself is only dangerous if it gets into the bloodstream, and can be digested with no ill effects – again, as long as there’s no internal scratches or lacerations that might allow it to pass into the bloodstream. In fact, drinking snake venom has been a part of rituals in Thailand for a long time, thought to bestow the person who drinks it an immunity to the poison as well as strength and confidence.
8. Ilha de Quemada Grande
An island off the coast of Brazil, it’s incredibly beautiful and incredible deadly. About 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Sao Paulo, it’s home to the highest concentration of deadly snakes in the world.
(Image: Cláudio Timm, cc-sa-4.0)
The snakes are golden lancehead vipers, and here’s anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 of them on the island. As an isolated population, they’ve been on their own for about 11,000 years, since the ocean separated the island and the mainland. There’s lanceheads on the mainland, too, but the island snakes have a venom that’s even more deadly. The snakes are alone on the ground, meaning that they have no predators and no prey. In order to adapt to catching and eating birds, their venom has evolved to kill almost instantly, rather than forcing them to do the usual bite-and-wait routine of other snakes.
And that’s venom that can also, quite literally, melt human flesh. It also causes intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, hemorrhaging in the brain and muscular necrosis, which all means that it’s not really surprising that the Brazilian government has some pretty severe restrictions on going to the island, and requires that a doctor be present in any group that attempts it.
It’s estimated that there’s a snake for every square meter of the island, and that’s a terrifying thing. The incredibly deadly nature of the snakes isn’t enough to keep everyone away, though, and it’s a major hotspot for wildlife smugglers looking to sell a lancehead on the black market. One snake can fetch up to $30,000, and for some, the payoff is worth the risk. The snakes have groups interested in them as well, as snake venom from numerous species has been incredibly useful in the development of a variety of pharmaceuticals.
7. Snake-free Islands
On the other end of the spectrum from the snake-filled and incredibly deadly Brazilian island are some other islands that are incredibly snake-free. Ireland is the most famous one of these, perhaps, but it’s not alone – there’s no snakes on Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, or New Zealand, either.
(Image: NASA Earth Observatory, public domain)
Although the most popular story is that there’s no snakes in Ireland because of St. Patrick, there’s a more scientific – and just as fascinating – story as to why there’s several islands in the world that haven’t been colonized by the creatures.
At the time that snakes were evolving from their lizard ancestors, the Tyrannosaurus rex was also coming to power and Ireland was still deep under the ocean. About 65 million years ago, water levels began to drop, land began to dry, and within 15 million years, snakes were starting to spread. During the following decades, centuries and millennia, land bridges that might have provided snakes a handy way to get to Ireland from the continent – or to any of the other islands – were coming and going.
The Ice Ages were coming and going, too, meaning that snakes that might have had a chance at adapting to Ireland’s snake-hostile environment froze instead.
And even though Northern Ireland is only a relative stone’s throw away from Scotland and their snakes, no snake species has ever successfully crossed a body of water and then adapted to colonize an island.
6. Black Mamba Venom
In South Africa, the bite of the black mamba is known as the ‘kiss of death’. A single bite is powerful enough to kill 15 grown men, and they’re incredibly aggressive, incredibly fast, and extraordinary deadly. Throughout their native habitat, around 20,000 people each year die from snake bites even today, and the brownish-colored black mamba is blamed for a lot of those deaths, which can occur within 20 minutes of being bitten.
(Image: Bill Love, cc-sa-3.0)
The name ‘black mamba’ comes not from the color of its skin, but from the color of the inside of its mouth – and if you can see the inside of its mouth, that means it’s giving you a very, very direct warning.
But lately, the black mamba has been intriguing scientists for a different reason than its deadly nature – it’s potential healing power. The venom of the black mamba also contains a powerful painkiller, one that’s stronger than morphine and, so far, has shown none of the side effects. It has scientists a bit baffled as to why the venom would contain a painkiller that’s been proven effective on some of the snake’s most common prey – rodents. It’s been suggested that it might be there to keep prey from running from the snake, but it also presents some intriguing possibilities if it can be adapted for use in humans.
5. The Irony of Snake Oil
A snake oil salesman is often thought to be as slippery and slimy as what he’s selling – a quack remedy that’s not going to do anything at all. With the recent medical advances – like the discovery of the painkiller in black mamba venom – modern medicine is beginning to suspect that there’s something to the idea of actual snake oil after all.
(Images: Jeremy Weate, cc-4.0; Wikipedia (inset), public domain)
The idea of snake oil has gone full circle. In the 1860s, America saw an influx of Chinese immigrants who would often find jobs laboring on building projects like the Transcontinental Railroad. They brought with them a traditional medicine – snake oil – and it was incredibly effective. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil was known for reducing inflammation and relieving the aches and pains that went along with what they were doing. For generations, snake oil was an absolutely legit treatment for things like arthritis.
It worked so well that American – and later, European – merchants wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the wonder oil. Because they couldn’t get their hands on the snakes that they needed to make effective medicines, they used any old snakes – which in turn meant that the cures didn’t work. The whole industry got bigger and bigger, and eventually, the idea of being a snake oil salesman had less to do with all-natural medicines and traditional healing, and more to do with being a fraud. Snake oil became about selling miracle cures guaranteed to do everything from regrowing hair to soothing toothaches and animal bites.
Some of the American snake oil salesmen were so upfront about what they were doing that they would often kill rattlesnakes in from of the crowd, to show just where the oil was coming from (never mind that it was the wrong snake).
More recently, modern science is taking another look at snake oil, and ironically, there’s real benefits to some of it. Some snake oil is incredibly high in omega-3’s, which really do have the effects that the Chinese snake oil was reputed to have in the early days of the product. In addition to being an effective treatment for arthritis, it also contains compounds that can lower cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.
4. The Snake Temple
As feared as they often are, snakes are just as frequently associated with the gods and with divinity, perhaps no more so than they are in the Snake Temple of Bayan Lepas. According to the story, the temple was built on land donated by a grateful British traveler.
(Image: Khalzuri Yazid, cc-sa-4.0)
In the 1800s, a monk brought the deity Chor Soo Kong to China from Penang. Along with the deity came stories of miraculous healing, and when a British landowner prayed to the god and was healed by those prayers, he donated the land to build the temple on.
According to the rest of the story, once the temple was built, snakes began to converge on it. Recognizing the divinity of the snakes, the monk gave them shelter, and they’ve been there ever since.
The snakes are pit vipers, and just how dangerous they are is up for debate. The monks of the temple say that while they’re still wild animals, they won’t bite – they do, however, caution tourists about getting too close. Their venom is deadly, not a paralytic, but one that slowly kills from the inside. Some believe that the incense that burns in the temple keeps the snakes fairly mild-mannered, but it probably doesn’t pay to tempt fate. Behind the temple is a pool with fruit trees, and more snakes that hang from the branches. Central to the beliefs around the temple is that the snakes are there only because the deities want them to be.
3. The World’s Oldest Ritual
Currently, the oldest ritual in the world has been found to date back 70,000 years. It was held in Botswana, in the Tsodilo Hills. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient, sacred site has long been known as having one of the largest groupings of rock and cave paintings in the world. The 3,500+ paintings are about 1,500 years old, but the site’s fascinating history dates back to the literal dawn of man.
(Image: Joachim Huber, cc-sa-4.0)
Home to the San, the world was created when a python wound its way across the land, creating mountains and riverbeds, and ultimately creating man. Although the area has been extensively studied, it’s difficult to find the balance between respecting the ancient, sacred site and exploring it – so it’s not entirely surprising that it was only recently that the cave was discovered.
Inside was a mysterious rock that looked like a python. When the time of day was right and the sun shown on the rock, archaeologists said that they could see it teeth and the eyes, the texture of the skin. When the chamber was excavated, they found not only tools that had been used to carve the snake, but spearheads that had been burned in ritual offerings, and a small, secret hidden chamber. The chamber was big enough for a person, and it was suggested that it was where the shaman would stand to conduct the rituals; it’s a theory that was supported by a small shaft leading outside, that would have allowed the holy man to come and go without being seen by the supplicants.
There were no signs of any normal human habitation in the cave, either – it was solely a place of ritual, and of snakes.
2. Our Medical Symbols
For something that can cause such fear in us, snakes are also permanently intertwined in something else – so much so that it’s easy to overlook.
(Image: Nicolas Raymond, cc-4.0)
There’s two different medical symbols that are associated with snakes, and they’re both familiar. The caduceus is a combination of a couple of different symbols – the wings of the Greek messenger god Hermes, his staff, and the snakes. The snakes are there because, according to the story, Hermes once intervened between two snakes that were fighting. As he separated them, they wound around his staff and remained there, a symbol of balance, peaceful coexistence and harmony.
The single staff and snake was the one that belonged to the Greek healer Asclepius. Asclepius was so renowned for his healing ability that not only was he able to cure illness and sickness, but he was able to bring the dead back to life. Zeus didn’t take kindly to this affront to the natural order of things, and killed him. (Although another, perhaps more ironic version of the story states that the offense wasn’t bringing someone back from the dead, but taking a payment for doing so.) Either way, Asclepius became known as the serpent-bearer, and was placed in the stars.
The connection between snakes and healing is a fascinating one, and one that comes largely from the shedding of their skin – a symbol of rebirth and renewal.
1. That’s Just How We’re Programmed
So we’ve looked at the good and the bad, the terrifying and the hopeful. What is it that makes us terrified of these creatures? It turns out that it might just be the way we’re programmed.
(Image: H. Krisp, cc-3.0)
There’s another group that we share our feelings about snakes with, and that’s the primates. Researchers have found that in areas where there are deadly snakes to be wary of, primates that share the area have developed better vision than those that live in snake-free areas. Once they realized the potential correlation, they set out to see if there was a difference in brains as well.
Only humans, monkeys and apes are pre-disposed to a neurological reaction when seeing a snake. Even monkeys that had never seen a snake before show the same spike in brain activity when they’re face to face with one – even just in pictures. Humans show the same tendencies, with even children showing a sort of knee-jerk reaction in the brain when it comes to snakes.
Researchers performed a pretty fascinating test to see just how in-tune to snakes our brains really are. They showed groups of adults and children pictures with a snake hidden somewhere in it – and almost without fail, whether child or adult, people were consistently able to find the hidden snake faster than any other image.
While there’s still more research that needs to be done, the idea seems to confirm that not only do we currently have a sort of love-hate relationship with snakes, but that we’re actually building on 60 million years of evolutionary history when we flinch from the sight of a snake.
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