Let us start by asking, why did the African people use poison on their arrows and sometimes spears?.
The animals in Africa are generally bigger than on any other other continents, and with the absence of guns, a method was needed to kill such large animals with a bow and arrow, and thus poison was used to kill animals many times faster and bigger, 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 or kill 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 'Haarige Kanniedood' in Afrikaans, a host to 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 arrow poison 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 poison.
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 sp.
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 before use. 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. oblongiflora, 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.
Adenium boehmianum: 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 arrow.
Asclepias stellifera: 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. Pachypodium lealii: A very interesting tree called Bottle tree or 'Bottel-boom' in Afrikaans, the latex of this plant is still used as a arrow poison today.