How did they make poison for arrows?
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 gun a method was needed to kill bigger animals
with a bow and thus poison was used to kill animals many times faster than
a normal arrow.
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 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 kilometers.
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.
Altough the Strophantus kombe (Zambezi tail flower or Poion 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 exstraction
of arrow poison where A. longiflora, A. oppositifolia, and A. schimperi
in general known as Bushman's poison, poison bush, poison tree or wintersweet.
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 Pylgif 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.
Also called Milkbush or melkbos in Afrikaans, it exudes milky latex,
which was then used as poison.
Known as Gifbol or Kopseerblom 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 Bottelboom in Afrikaans,
the latex of this plant was used as a arrow poison.