How did they
make poison for arrows?
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Let us start by asking why did they poison
their arrows and sometimes spears. The animals in Africa are generally bigger
than on other continents and with the absence of guns, a method was needed to
kill bigger animals with a bow, and thus poison was used to kill animals many
times faster, than what a normal arrow would have.
What type of poison was used?
Africa have many different tribes which use many different ways of hunting,
so let concentrate on what poison was used and how it was made.
In Africa snake poison, plants, grubs, spiders,
toads and many other ingredients were used, some which was really poisonous and
other that was added for their magic or possible poisonous effect.
The poison grub
The San or better known as the Bushmen, use lightly constructed bows and
arrows in their hunting which means that the injury inflicted by the arrow is
usually insufficient to subdue large prey unless it is supplemented by a poison
that has been applied to the arrow. The various groups of hunters have used a
variety of poisons. Some use plant-derived substances or toxins derived from
poisonous snakes. However, in the northern Kalahari, the most commonly used
poisonous substance for arrows is that derived from the larva and pupae of
chrysomelid beetles in the genus Diamphidia. This beetle in different stages of
its live cycle can be found on and in the near vicinity of its host plant the
Commiphora sp. In particular the Dza or also known as Sand Corkwood (C.
angolensis), which is a very important tree for the San for various reasons, and
host plant for Diamphidia nigroornata and the Hairy Corkwood or also known as
Harige Kanniedood in Afrikaans host the Diamphidia simplex and Diamphidia
vittatipennis. These cocoons can be found near the roots of their particular
host plants at between 20 cm and 1 meter deep.
Other grubs used are the grub of the Lebistina spp., which can be found near
the Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) .
How were the grubs utilized as poison?
There are three main ways and many variations of these ways in which the
poison may be applied to the arrows:
Squeezing the contents of larvae/pupae directly
on to the arrows, just behind the arrow point on the fore shaft, the reason for
this is to prevent accidental poisoning, if the hunters get a nick from the
arrow. Drying the arrows over a fire might follow this.
Making a mixture of beetle larvae/pupae plus
plant juice plus spit and/or tree gum then applying it to the arrows. The plant
juice acts as an adhesive and in some cases as a second toxin.
Drying the larvae/pupae in the sun, grinding
them into powder and then mixing the powder with plant juices. This mixture is
then applied to the arrows. It may also be good to add that sometimes many
different non-toxic ingredients are added to increase the magical potency of the
How efficient are this poison?
Depending on the size of an animal it can take from a few minutes for a hare
to up to a few days for a big animal like a giraffe. But usually when bigger
game are shot, the hunters try to get as much as possible arrows in the animal
and try also to deliver the arrow to a jugular or main artery. After shooting
the animal, the San will wait for a few minutes/hours, waiting for the poison to
take effect before tracking of the animal will commence which can last for days
and over many kilometres.
There are hundreds of plants and combinations
of plants used to produce effective arrow poisons. Three of the most popular or
poisonous are from Strophanthus sp., Acokanthera sp. and Euphorbia sp. In
explaining the methods of extracting poison from these three plants will cover
most but not all extraction methods. Every hunter or clan have its own way,
ritual, additives and method of making poison. Let us start with the Strophantus
Although the Strophantus kombe (Zambezi tail flower or Poison Rope) was the
most used of the species, Strophantus amboensis (Omuhundure), Strophanthus
hispidus and Strophantus speciosus (Common Poison rope) was also used. The
poison derived from S. hispidus was known as inee or onaye and was used mostly
at the west coast of Africa (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and
Gabon), S. gratus in equatorial Africa, S. kombe was used mostly in
central and east Africa as far south as the Zambezi, S. amboensis southern
Angola and northern Namibia and S. speciosus in South Africa.
The seeds are collected, crushed and mix with saliva or other additives to
form a paste, the paste was then left in strong sunlight for several hours
This poison can literally kill an average big animal in 20 minutes.
Along the Acokanthera sp. the most popular three for the extraction of arrow
poison where A. longiflora, A. oppositifolia, and A. schimperi in general known
as Bushman's poison, poison bush, poison tree or winter-sweet.
All parts of the plant can be used. Stems, roots, or even leaves, but wood
chips are preferred, are put in a large container, filled with water and boiled
for up to 12 hours. Additional water is added in case the water evaporates
before this time period is attained. Once all the water has evaporated, a thick
sticky black substance is left in the container.
The plant parts are discarded. This substance is then cut into pieces, put
into containers or wrapped and stored away from people where it can later be
mixed with water or tree gum to form a thick paste which can be applied to the
arrows. This poison are extremely poisonous and can kill a 50 kg animal with
ease in less than 20 minutes.
The Euphorbia sp. latex (white milky stuff) was mostly used as an additive,
but a few species have also been used as arrow poison, two I can think of is
Euphorbia virosa and Euphorbia subsala. The trunks are cut and the white latex
collected which was then smeared on the arrows, sometimes the latex was
collected slowly ”cooked” and then used.
There are many other plants also used, with just as much potency than the
above and I will name a few.
Also called Ouzuwo in Herero and Pyl-gif in Afrikaans.
Thick branches and roots were heated over a fire until a sticky sap exudes
which was collected and winded on a piece of wood to be smeared directly on the
Also called Milk-bush or melk-bos in Afrikaans, it exudes milky latex, which
was then used as poison.
Known as Gif-bol or Kopseer-blom in Afrikaans and Poison bulb in English
explain it all, although very toxic it is a slow working poison.
A very interesting tree called Bottle tree or Bottel-boom in Afrikaans, the
latex of this plant was used as a arrow poison.