Termite 'Apartment Complex' Has Been Busy for 34K Years

'We knew they were old, but not that old,' South African researcher says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 4, 2024 4:20 PM CDT
Termite Mounds Have Been Inhabited for 34K Years
Stellenbosch University researchers pose for a selfie next to an ancient termite mound in Namaqualand, South Africa.   (Photo/Michele Francis via AP)

Scientists in South Africa have been stunned to discover that termite mounds that are still inhabited in an arid region of the country are more than 30,000 years old, meaning they're the oldest known active termite hills. Some of the mounds near the Buffels River in Namaqualand were estimated by radiocarbon dating to be 34,000 years old, according to the researchers from Stellenbosch University. "We knew they were old, but not that old," says lead researcher Michele Francis, senior lecturer in the university's soil science department.

Francis said the mounds existed while saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths roamed other parts of the Earth and large swaths of Europe and Asia were covered in ice, the AP reports. They predate some of the earliest cave paintings in Europe. Some fossilized termite mounds have been discovered dating back millions of years. The oldest inhabited mounds before this study were found in Brazil and are around 4,000 years old.

  • Francis said the Namaqualand mounds are a termite version of an "apartment complex," and that the evidence shows they've been consistently inhabited by termite colonies.
  • Termite mounds are a famous feature of the Namaqualand landscape, but no one suspected their age until samples of them were taken to experts in Hungary for radiocarbon dating. "People don't know that these are special, ancient landscapes that are preserved there," Francis said.

  • Some of the biggest mounds—known locally as "heuweltjies," which means "little hills" in the Afrikaans language—measure around 100 feet across. The termite nests are as deep as 10 feet underground. Researchers needed to carefully excavate parts of the mounds to take samples, and the termites went into "emergency mode" and started filling in the holes, Francis said. The team fully reconstructed the mounds to keep the termites safe from predators like aardvarks.
  • Francis said the project was more than just a fascinating look at ancient structures. It also offered a peek into a prehistoric climate that showed Namaqualand was a much wetter place when the mounds were formed.
(More termites stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.