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Arrow poison

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Title: Arrow poison  
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Subject: Chondrodendron tomentosum, Projectile, Arrow, Serer history, Serer people
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Arrow poison

Arrow poisons are used to poison arrow heads or darts for the purposes of hunting, warfare or murder. They have been used by indigenous peoples worldwide and are still in use in areas of South America, Africa and Asia. Notable examples are the poisons secreted from the skin of the poison dart frog, and curare (or 'ampi'), a general term for a range of plant-derived arrow poisons used by the indigenous peoples of South America.[1]

Poisoned arrows have featured in mythology, notably the Greek story of Heracles slaying the centaur Nessus using arrows poisoned with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra. The Greek hero Odysseus poisons his arrows with hellebore in Homer's Odyssey. Poisoned arrows also figure in Homer's epic about the Trojan War, the Iliad, in which both Achaeans and Trojans used toxic arrows and spears.[2] Baldr's death in the Norse myths features poison arrows. The modern terms "toxic" and "toxin" derive from the ancient Greek word for "bow", toxon, from Old Persian *taxa-, "an arrow".[3][4][5]

Poison arrows were used by real peoples in the ancient world, including the Gauls, ancient Romans, and the nomadic Scythians and Soanes. Ancient Greek and Roman historians describe recipes for poisoning projectiles and historical battles in which poison arrows were used. Alexander the Great encountered poisoned projectiles during his conquest of India (probably dipped in the venom of Russell's viper) and the army of the Roman general Lucullus suffered grievous poison wounds from arrows shot by nomads during the Third Mithridatic War (1st century BC).[2] Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the Philippines during the Battle of Mactan when he was struck in the leg by a poisoned arrow.[6]

The use of poisoned arrows in hunting and warfare by some Native Americans has also been documented.[7]

Over the ages, Chinese warfare has included projectiles poisoned with various toxic substances.[8]


Arrow poisons around the world are created from many sources:

Plant based poisons

Strychnos toxifera, a plant commonly used in the preparation of curare

Animal-based poisons

The black-legged dart frog, a species of poison dart frog whose secretions are used in the preparation of poison darts.
  • In the northern Kalahari Desert, the most commonly used arrow poison is derived from the larva and pupae of beetles of the genus Diamphidia. It is applied to the arrow either by squeezing the contents of the larva directly onto the arrow head, mixing it with plant sap to act as an adhesive, or by mixing a powder made from the dried larva with plant juices and applying that to the arrow tip. The toxin is slow attacking and large animals can survive 4–5 days before succumbing to the effects.[18]

There is evidence of Pacific Island cultures using poison arrow and spear tips. An account from Hector Holthouse's book "Cannibal Cargoes" P.141 (on the subject of the Australian Pacific Island Labour Trade) describes a canoe, resting on forks in the sand; within the canoe the body of a man rotting in the sun. The unsealed canoe allowing the putrefaction to collect in a knotched shallow bowl in which arrow heads and spear tips are soaked. Wounds with these weapons caused tetanus infection.


The following 17th-century account describes how arrow poisons were prepared in China:

"In making poison arrows for shooting wild beasts, the tubers of wild aconitum are boiled in water. The resulting liquid, being highly viscous and poisonous, is smeared on the sharp edges of arrowheads. These treated arrowheads are effective in the quick killing of both human beings and animals, even though the victim may shed only a trace of blood."[15]

Native American tribes would agitate the snake or lizard until it repeatedly struck into the spoiled meat or liver of an animal, impregnating it with its toxin. The tips of arrows or the blowgun darts were then dipped into the poisoned meat.

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  5. ^ The Free Dictionary, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^ Chavannes, Édouard. “Trois Généraux Chinois de la dynastie des Han Orientaux. Pan Tch’ao (32-102 p.C.); – son fils Pan Yong; – Leang K’in (112 p.C.). Chapitre LXXVII du Heou Han chou.”. 1906. T’oung pao 7, pp. 226-227.
  17. ^
  18. ^
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