The idea of a collective consciousness (or anthill) species is pretty simple; instead of cells tissues and organs you have ant-like creatures, all making up a larger creature. This is different from a hive mind in that the individuals of the mind are not sapient, only the collective is.

As I design this species and their culture, I realized a problem. Since they exist as a mass, they cannot use tools in the way we do. They are able to finely manipulate objects even better than us, but I cannot figure out how they could use tools such as hammers, or pickaxes. This creates a problem of them getting into and past the stone age and thus into civilization. How can an Anthill species be able to use tools?

Keep answer regarding the realism of anthills here

  • $\begingroup$ I don't see why ants can't use hammers or pickaxes, given the correct intelligence level. For example, hammer usage would be using the ants to place the hammer upright on a table (or some other surface) balanced on the handle side. Aim it, tip it over, tool use complete. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Jul 8, 2016 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify The problem would be a group of ant are unable to place the hammer upright? $\endgroup$
    – cytsunny
    Jul 8, 2016 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ @cytsunny and why not? Something like this youtube.com/watch?v=sDwSYgO4PQU doesn't seem completely unfeasible - if a small group can do it with something like that, a large group can definitely do it to a hammer. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Jul 8, 2016 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify If an individual ant in that anthill is that powerful, I don't see the point of using a hammer. They can collectively push a nail into the wood directly. Human use a hammer because they have difficulties in focusing their force on a small point / plane, but that would not be a problem for a group of ants. $\endgroup$
    – cytsunny
    Jul 8, 2016 at 5:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think your question needs clarifying. Are you asking if ants can use ant-sized tools? Or are you asking if ants could use human-sized tools? I can't see any problem with tiny ants using tiny pickaxes. Though obviously the tiny pickaxe only does a tiny bit of damage to the rock you are hitting. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jul 8, 2016 at 10:34

6 Answers 6


Tools are for big, singular organisms. The anthill has much better solutions.

Want to attach one piece of wood to another? Have each ant carve a tiny indentation/extrusion into the piece so they lock together perfectly. Or have each ant collect some sugar-water or tree sap and deposit it locally.

Need metal? let each ant collect a tiny bit of ore, and collect it all, and process it in tiny quantities.

Imagine if our carpenters and smiths and stonemasons could disconnect each cell of their bodies and let the resultant mulch flow over the raw materials, with each cell working on a tiny piece.

The only exceptions I can think of are when a large amount of focused force is required (eg. to break rocks apart to create flint), or when the raw material is too tough to carve with parts of your body. In the first case, the anthill should construct a single tool larger than itself (for instance to use gravity). In the second case, it can create little body extensions for the individual ants. These are tools on the ant scale, so they should be so easy to use that no intelligence is required.

  • $\begingroup$ While I Love this answer, I gotta ask, how do they mine the ore? Metal tends to be hard to dig with your own body. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Jul 8, 2016 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b That's not entirely true - it applies to us soft exterior humans, yes, but perhaps there are ants (or variants of the ants) that can produce an acid which dissolves the rock and leaves the metal, or variants of ants that have a tough enough shell to actually do digging. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Jul 8, 2016 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Aify considering that the whole concept of collective consciousness relies on specialization, that is actually a great idea! $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Jul 8, 2016 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b I was to lazy to do the research there :), but here's one thought: melt it (set a fire, dump it in lava, etc) and then send a cluster of ants in. The Leidenfrost effect will protect them long enough for a few to come out with a little clump of cooled down metal. Individual ants are expendable, if the ore is valuable enough. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2016 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ I think your approach might run into some trouble with processes that don't scale well - melting ore for example. A big fire will be able to reach high temperatures, while a small one will get blown out by a wind, and definitely not melt some copper ore. I really doubt a steel smelter for example could be constructed at toolless-ant-serviceable scales ;) $\endgroup$
    – Syndic
    Jul 11, 2016 at 8:46

Why wouldnt they be able to? Ants use their bodies to form bridges like this:

enter image description here

or this:

enter image description here

or boats like this:

enter image description here

So why not swing a hammer? With enough numbers, they can accomplish just about anything.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Agreed. For that matter humans built pyramids and lots of other monuments where the basic building blocks are far too large and heavy for a human to move. Even for us combining our strength is natural. For an anthill species even more so. They wouldn't really even have a concept of individual action to get in the way of acting as a group. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2016 at 7:14

I recall a movie where alien bugs would take the skelleton of a dead animal and essentially animate it. They were less formidable without the bones, as with it they had leverage and could apply strength in the manner of large animals.

So look at some of Keltari’s photos, and imagine the bridges evolve into muscles and ligaments.

After all, how can eucaryotic cells use tools? Yeast can't swing a hammer, but what about multicellular organisms makes that possible?

Also, look at the 2015 movie Ant Man, where the hero had ants help him.


Since there would (probably?) be no human-designed tools lying around, your anthill species would design tools fit for their own use - which would likely look very different.

I imagine if they have need to manipulate big objects (for example to make a furnace, which you can't simply scale down to ant-size), the invention of the pulley system would be hailed as one of the biggest early achievements. Extract strong fiber from plants or animals around you, chew(?) some bones or wood into pulleys, and go to town.

What anthills could lift/move directly this way would be somewhat limited by friction (can't just have a fishing line over 100 pulleys pulled directly by ants), but there could be a step-by-step upscaling - ants pull up weights with what they can do with pulleys, those weights get bound together and attached to thicker ropes on bigger pulleys, lifting up bigger weights... until you can lift or move the item that needs lifting or moving.

Mechanical knowledge in general would be useful - you can make gears from bones/wood and build a hammering/pickaxing machine powered by a platform or basket filled with many weights of ants-with-pulley-system liftable individual sizes.

It's a lot more effort than simply having a 5-6ft naked monkey swing a stick with a rock on the end, but it's doable ;)


If your ants are intelligent enough to consider tool use, could they not barter/bribe other animals to wield large tools for them, for a price?

Spelled out by stationary ants on a table:

"One gram of gold dust for a fifty-pound sack of sugar. Are you game?
And no, we won't tell you where we get it from; we're Ants, not fools."

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting idea $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Nov 28, 2016 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. The notion is on my mind, because I have a sessile species (can't move) that's trying to use cross-species communication/barter to get another species to do things requiring hand and feet (or at least paws.) $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Nov 28, 2016 at 18:37

How can a tiny, squishy human excavate 15 cubic metres of material in a single move?

With This:

Bagger 293

That's the Bagger 293, the heaviest land vehicle on the planet. The size comparison is pretty apt.

Why would ants use such innefficient mechanisms as our tools? If they needed to do the same job we do with a hammer, they could use a scale equivalent of a pile-driver. If they needed to crack rock, they could use the same techniques humans use, like putting water into cracks and allowing it to freeze, inserting wooden wedges into cracks and adding water, using chemical explosives, steam-driven picks...all kinds of options.

The problem is only that you're thinking of tools on human scales. There's no reason to think that smaller tools couldn't do an equally good job, or why bigger tools couldn't be manipulated by small creatures - as long as the tools were designed for them.


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