Our hunter-gatherer societies have known for millennia what modern science discovered only later – namely the poisonous properties of certain plants and animals, and how to turn these natural toxins to their own use.
Most of us have heard of the poison dart frog, but there is much more to this story than just this one toxic amphibian.
Elderly Semelai man using blowpipe
There are at least six other substances, five of them extracted from plants and one more from another animal, that have been used by hunting tribesmen to tip their arrows with and thus kill their prey more quickly.
For the tribes in South America, Asia and Africa, the use of poison on their arrows was of direct benefit, as they did not have to go chasing after monkeys or other prey that they injured with an arrow, often in dangerous areas.
The paralyzing properties of most of these substances would bring their targets down very quickly, if not immediately.
Aconitum contains a number of species, not all of which are deadly poisonous, but the ones that are, truly are. Known as “monkshood” and “leopard’s bane” among other names, it has been used by many tribal groups in the northern hemisphere.
The Minaro in Ladakh used it to hunt Ibex, the Chinese used it both for game hunting and war, and the Ainu in Japan also used a species of it on their arrows for hunting deer and brown bear. They poison the Ainu obtained, known as “surku”, was extracted from the roots and stems of aconite plants, and when hunting they mixed it with dog’s bane, tobacco and other noxious substances; each household had its own secret recipe. If a person (or an animal) gets a large dose of aconite, death is almost immediate, while smaller doses result in death in two to six hours. Nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting are all initial symptoms, before the poison progresses to attack the cardiac and nervous systems.
6. Acokanthera oblongifolia
The acokanthera plants all have poisonous sap that contain cardiotoxic glycosides, which means those poisoned by arrows laced with the substance can suffer cardiac arrest.
Tribes in Togo and Cameroon often use acokanthera oblongifolia to hunt monkeys and other bushmeat.
The acokanthera tree is also known as the “bushmen’s poison”, or “wintersweet”. Poachers have been known to use it to get game in areas where the sound of guns would alert the authorities, and the bushmen of Africa use it often. The bushmen have a large population in Southern Africa, 90,000 at the last count.
Curare is an arrow poison that comes from the plant Strychnos toxifera. Indigenous people in South America have used it on their blowgun darts and arrows for centuries. The poison kills the prey by stopping their respiratory muscles from working, asphyxiating the animal.
The name curare comes from the word “wurari”, which the Macusi people in Guyana used to refer to the substance. What’s more, curare doesn’t just just have applications as a poison for arrows but has also been used in medical treatments – as a muscle relaxant in anaesthesia.
4. Strychnos-nux vomica
The strychnos tree has two poisonous compounds, strychnine and brucine. With a short trunk, shiny green leaves and round seeds, it might seem hard to tell that it contains one of the most poisonous substances known to man, but the tree does give us a bit of forewarning. Its flowers smell most foul – rather as if it warns that it can be used for murder most foul!
Most of us have heard of strychnos owing to its use in rat poison – as well as the occasional murder! – but it has been used for centuries as an arrow poison in the jungles of Assam, Burma, Malaysia and Java. A chieftain of the Limba people of Sierra Leone is holding iron-tipped arrows dipped in strychnos poison in the image above. The seeds contain 1.5% strychnine, but the flowers and bark contain the poison too. People and animals exposed to the substance will suffer paralysis, severe convulsions and, finally, death. On the plus side, medical science has used it in minute doses to help people as well.
3. Sandbox Tree
The sandbox tree is a member of an evergreen family found in tropical North and South America and the Amazon rainforest. It has numerous spikes, which is why it is occasionally called the “monkey no climb tree.”
Fishermen have used the sandbox tree to poison fish in rivers, while hunters – especially the Carib people of the Caribbean – have used the milky sap to tip their arrows with. The image above is of a member of the Kali’na tilewuyu, one of the tribes that make up the Carib.
2. Poison Dart Frogs
Now we get to the arrow poison most people have heard of – the toxin that comes from the poison dart frog. Found in South America, there are three species of these frogs that contain the most poison: Phyllobates terribilis, P. bicolor and P. aurotaenia. Terribilis is so poisonous that arrows only have to be dipped in the back of its skin to be potent, while the other two species are generally roasted over an open fire to make them sweat the poison out.
It only takes 150 micrograms of poison from P. bicolor to kill an adult human, while the more toxic P. terribilis has caused fatalities just through people touching it. It is so toxic that chickens and dogs can die if they have contact with paper towel that has in turn been in contact with the frog. A single P. terribilis frog contains enough venom to kill 10,000 mice or two bull elephants! To this day, tribes found in western Colombia, such as the Noanamá Chocó and Emberá Chocó, use the poison extracted from these frogs. Interestingly, in captivity all dart frogs loose their toxicity; they need chemicals, most likely from food found in the wild, to remain poisonous.
Diamphidia is a beetle related to the Colorado potato beetle but it is extremely poisonous. The innards and larvae are the most poisonous parts of the beetle. Tribesmen in the northern Kalahari desert use the poison in their arrow poison recipes. In the image above, a San Bushman is putting powdered larvae and plant sap onto an arrow. You’ll notice that he is being extremely careful and using a stick for all the work with the poison. Other tribes squeeze the larvae directly on to the arrow tip. Unfortunately, this is a slower acting drug: a large animal can stay alive for four to five days before dying, which means the bushmen need to track and kill it. Often the diamphidia poison is also combined with a poisonous sap.
Tribesmen learned the secrets of poison arrows from their fathers and their fathers before them, passing this knowledge down through the generations, and the poisons still work as well today as they always have done.
These poisons have provided medicine with the drugs needed to combat illness, even if better and more effective drugs were later discovered. One thing is for sure, though: if you come across an unknown plant in South America or Africa (or anywhere for that matter) don’t try to discover if it is edible without expert advice!