A Survey of Poison Use in Hunter-Gatherer Societies
I searched the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures database looking for evidence of poison use in hunting or fishing across the 39 hunter-gatherer societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS). Poisons were found in at least 26 of the 39 societies (67%), including every major world region (3/3 societies in Africa, 3/4 in Asia, 15/21 in North America, 1/3 in Oceania and 4/8 in South America). The making of poisons is not uncommonly a multi-step process, which requires significant attention and self-control to create and apply without incidentally harming oneself. The ability to produce complex poisons for use in hunting or fishing is certainly universal, but different cultural and ecological contexts—such as prey type and the availability of potentially poisonous materials in the environment—likely influence their use.
Ethnographic Descriptions of Poison Use
Mbuti, Central Africa. Turnbull, Colin M. (1965). Wayward servants: the two worlds of the African Pygmies.
The arrow tip is used more by the archers than by the net-hunters, it seems, but both groups rely primarily on poisoned arrows. The bows of neither group are large or efficient, accuracy is made doubly difficult by the limited vision of the forest environment, and hunters often aim at a sound or a movement of leaves rather than by sight of the actual quarry. With the poisoned arrow even a light graze will bring down the quarry, whereas with the metaltipped arrow direct impact on a vital spot is essential. Even so, so chancy is Mbuti archery that throughout the forest the practice is to hold a handful of arrows in the hand that holds the bow; this enables them to be drawn and fired with remarkable rapidity. Naturally many are lost, but the loss of a poisoned arrow is of far less economic significance than the loss of a metal tip…So wary are the Mbuti of poisoned arrows that they carry them thoroughly sheathed in a bundle of leaves, in case they accidentally scratch themselves. Also, when they have fired and lost a poisoned arrow, they may spend a considerable time trying to find it rather than leave it as a possible danger to other hunters. (Turnbull, 153 & 157).
Hadza, Eastern Africa. Marlowe, Frank. (2010). The Hadza: hunter-gatherers of Tanzania.
The Hadza use 3 different kinds of plant poisons (hach'e'e) for their arrows: panjube (Adenium obesum), shanjo (Strophanthus eminii), and kalakasy. Kalakasy does not grow in Hadzaland but grows just beyond, and the Hadza do not prepare it but rather obtain it already prepared through trade with their neighbors. Panjube is the most commonly used poison. It is a succulent that grows only in a few places. Men first either cut off a branch or pound it into pulp while still attached to the plant. They can remove the blade in their ax and use the large end of the wooden handle to pound with, or find a similarly shaped piece of wood. Once the pulp has been well beaten, the juice is squeezed out and boiled until the water evaporates, leaving a sticky black substance. When the poison is ready, it can be carried around in a ball much like clay until a man is ready to apply it. A small stick (polok'o) is used to stir it inside a fresh-water mussel shell that serves as a small bowl. Then a small amount is picked up with the stick and applied all around the shaft of the iron arrowhead. Shanjo, the other poison, comes from a small tree. Men pound the seeds and add water, but do not boil it. All three poisons are strong, and they are sometimes mixed together (Marlowe, 89).
San, Southern Africa. Fourie, Louis. (1928). The Bushmen of South West Africa.
Bow and poisoned arrows are used all the year round. These weapons differ considerably in character in various localities. The Kalahari bow is small compared with that used by the !Kũng of the Oschimpoloveld, and Hei-//om of the Etosha Pan region; the arrow consists of a reed shaft, bone foreshaft and bone or iron tip, whereas the latter use arrows with feathered wooden shafts and iron tips only. The poison also varies in different localities. In southern Namaqualand it is constituted of a mixture of plant juice (euphorbia), snake poison, scorpions and spiders; in the southern and central Kalahari only insect poison is used, and further north and north-west only plant poison (Fourie, 99).
Ainu, East Asia. Batchelor, John. (1927). Ainu life and lore: echoes of a departing race.
The Ainu always used aconite poison in olden times on their arrows when hunting. And they also set up spring bows by the tracks of bears and deer, by which they got not a few. Any animal going along the track where one was set would touch a string attached to the trigger of the bow as it passed, and this would let the poisoned arrow off at such a height as to strike the body. The poison was a fatal blood poison (Batchelor, 217).
Andaman Islands, South Asia. Man, Edward Horace. (1932). On the aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.
The seeds of a plant called tórog(?) are sometimes crushed and thrown into creeks where fish and prawns are likely to be, as it has the effect of driving the fish from their hiding place, and leads to their easy capture in hand-nets held in position for the purpose (Man, 146).
Veddas, South Asia. No data.
Semang, Southeast Asia. Endicott, Kirk M. (1979). Batek Negrito religion: the world-view and rituals of a hunting and gathering people of Peninsular Malaysia.
Fish may also be caught by poisoning. The poison is extracted from several kinds of bark and roots and released into a small stream. Then the stunned fish are collected as they float to the surface (Endicott, 13).
Aleuts, Alaska. Collins, Henry Bascom. (1945). The islands and their people.
“It seems likely that the preparation and use of the aconite poison [LSS: used in whale hunting] was a closely guarded secret known only to the whalers themselves and that their explanation of the efficacy of fat from human corpses [LSS: used to grease spear-heads used in whale hunting.] was merely a device to prevent outsiders from learning the nature of the real poison. (Heizer, 1943.) The use of aconite poison was widespread in Asia—from India and Malaysia to the Kurile Islands and Kamchatka—and it was probably from this direction that the practice spread to the Aleutians and Kodiak.” (Collins, 29)
Copper Inuit, Canada. No data.
Eyak, Alaska. Birket-Smith, Kaj. (1938). The Eyak Indians of the Copper River Delta, Alaska.
The spear and arrow points were smeared with poison, made from a certain plant known only to a few persons (shamans?)…The use of poisoned weapons was very widespread in the western parts of North America, but in most cases rattlesnake poison was employed. This was the case among many tribes of the Plateaus and the southern Northwest Coast, and many tribes in the Southwest poison their arrows in the same way. Plant poison is less common, but still far from being unknown; in some cases it is used in addition to animal poison, e.g. by the Thompson, Shoshoni, and Paiute. The Aleut prepared their poison from decayed corpses, as did the Chugach, but they also knew vegetable poison. The Tnaina employed shaman's ashes. Plant poison was also made by the Kamchadal and Ainu (Birket-Smith, 145 & 465).
Ingalik, Alaska. No data.
Innu, Canada. No data.
Kaska, Canada. No data.
Ojibwa, midwest US. Hilger, M. Inez (Mary Inez). (1951). Chippewa child life and its cultural background.
Blunt arrows were used in hunting birds and small game, the bluntness preventing the tearing of the flesh. Grooves were made on either one or both sides of an arrowhead which was intended for poisoning; grooves were packed with poisonous herbs. Another way of poisoning an arrow was to dip both it and part of the shaft into a mixture of water and rattlesnake poison. In either case the victim of the arrow could not survive (Hilger, 119).
Slavey, Canada. Helm, June. (1961). The Lynx Point people: the dynamics of a northern Athapaskan band. [Possibly non-traditional practice?]
Wolf is present but of no commercial value; wolves are trapped or poisoned only when they are raiding the traps too frequendy (Helm, 24).
Mi’kmaq, Canada. Wallis, Wilson D. (1955). The Micmac Indians of eastern Canada.
Another said: When, in the evening, you are near a swamp or a marsh, you will hear “ticks” from a plant. This sound can be heard in the marsh at Amherst, N.S. Though you search for the plant a hundred times, you cannot find it. You hear the ticks in one place, and when you go there, you hear them in another place. To find the plant, procure a spider and a black lizard — these are the worst poisons in the world — put them alive into water, and you will hear this me'didesxe'we (the plant), ticking. Go at midnight, strip off all clothing, and take a step at each tick, which comes every second or two. You will find the plant. Finally, you will hear it at your feet. Do not look down or stoop, but squat, dig in the ground there, and you will find the sought-for root. Carefully replace all the removed soil. If you do not put it back, you will not be able to find the plant again. A very small piece of root will suffice for a very long time. Boil the root, together with a spider and a lizard. It is fine medicine, but dangerous. A very small amount, if it gets into the blood, will kill. Formerly this “Poison” was used on arrows (Wallis, 25).
Haida, Canada. No data.
Nuxalk, Canada. No data.
Pomo, California. Barrett, S. A. (1952). Material aspects of Pomo culture.
One of the principal methods of taking fish in streams was by means of poisoning. This was a communal undertaking and was under the direction of the “fishing chief” who, incidentally, usually was not the same person as the “hunting chief.” This fishing chief directed all phases of this communal activity, including the gathering of the soaproot bulbs or other toxic materials, the building of the fish dam, and all other activities (Barrett, 149).
Southern Coast Salish, Washington. Tollefson, Kenneth Dean. (1996). In defense of a Snoqualmie political chiefdom model. [Possibly only used in war]
The Snoqualmie reportedly controlled the mountain trade with the Yakima in flint chipping rocks for making arrowheads. Haeberlin and Gunther (1930: 14) state, “Flint arrowheads were bought from the Snuqualmi, who were the only tribe that made them.” Snoqualmie elders relate how Pat Kanim's men would go up in the mountains in the August heat and tease rattlesnakes to entice them to bite at objects, so that they could grab them and milk their poison into a container for later application on arrowheads. A modern biologist confirms the effectiveness of this dried poison when it hit the bloodstream of some unsuspecting victim (Tollefson, 155).
Yokuts, California. Gayton, A. H. (1948). Yokuts and western Mono ethnography: vol. 1, Tulare Lake, Southern Valley, and Central Foothill Yokuts.
Fish poison (yao'ha) was made from a white flower which was pulverized and thrown over quiet water or a pond. The fish were scooped up in baskets as they came to the surface. The same flower was used in an infusion for headaches; it grows commonly on the plains (not identified). Another poison, undescribed, called tι□lιl, was mentioned by M.G. (Gayton, 15).
Yurok, California. Heizer, Robert F. (1952). The four ages of Tsurai: a documentary history of the Indian village on Trinidad Bay.
The arrows (Nekwetsch) are skillfully constructed, partly of reeds, partly of cedar wood. The upper part is furnished with two rows of feathers, drawn crosswise through the shaft. The tips are made in part of volcanic glass, in part of a fine kind of delicate pebble; frequently also of iron or ivory. The glass arrows [pl. 3, b] are the most dangerous. Their points are from one to one and a half inchés long, three-cornered and jagged. They are fastened to the arrow by means of a firm mass of resin. If they penetrate a human body the glass generally splinters on the bones, the wound promptly festering with fatal results. The iron tips, which are supplied with strong barbs are only lightly fastened to the arrow, with the result that when the latter is withdrawn they remain in the body. The ivory tips usually bore through the body completely. Sometimes the arrows are poisoned with the juice of the sumac tree, in which cases they are only used to slay wild beasts (Heizer, 124).
Comanche, southwestern United States. Wallace, Ernest. (1952). The Comanches: lords of the south Plains.
Poisoned arrows may have belonged to all the Texas tribes but there is little definite information about this save in reference to the Comanches. The Comanches did poison their arrow points occasionally for use in war, by making an extract from a plant not known to our informants or by sticking them in a dead skunk (Wallace, 105).
Gros Ventre, Montana. Cooper, John M. (1957). The Gros Ventres of Montana: part 2, Religion and ritual. [Possibly only ritual use].
The wild parsley, associated with the Flat and Feathered Pipe and with the Crazy Lodge, was used as a powerful poison. It was greatly feared and was spoken of in undertones. Its preparation is a lost art. The whole plant was and is considered poisonous, but poison was prepared principally from the root, which was first dried and seasoned, then pulverized, and used in a liquid. It was also used mixed with other things…If one were scratched with an arrow that had been dipped in wild parsley infusion he would suffer spasms, fits and acute agony and would not live till morning. Such a poisoned arrow was tied by each Crazy Lodge dancer to his bow, apparently as a silent threat to enforce obedience and respect by the people during the lodge rites, but was thrown away after the dance was over. These poisoned arrows were not used at any other time than the Crazy Lodge; never for instance, in Gros Ventre wars or raids on enemies.
Klamath, Oregon. Spier, Leslie (1930). Klamath ethnography. [Possibly only used in war].
The root [of the water hemlock (skä’-wänks, Circuta maculata L.)] mashed and mixed with poison from a rattlesnake’s poison sacs or with the decomposed liver of a deer or some other animal, which has been buried in the ground a few days, was used to poison war arrows, the heads of the arrows being dipped in the moist mixture and dried over a special kind of fire with a certain ceremonial. Circuta was sometimes used among Indians to poison people in very much the same way as arsenic or other well-known poisons are used in civilized communities. It was also stated that pieces of dead fish dried in a certain way (my informant did not know exactly how) are a deadly poison when taken in food (Spier, 193).
Kutenai, midwest US and Canada. Turney-High, Harry Holbert. (1941). Ethnography of the Kutenai.
Chief Kustata maintains that at one time all the Kutenai poisoned their arrows; the Upper bands gave it up soon after the coming of the white man, but the Lower Kutenai kept it until the end. This was denied at Bonner's Ferry and Creston, but Chief Kustata says that he could recognize the plant if he could only see, and that tradition says that the poison produced swelling and eventual death (Turney-High, 86).
Eastern Apache, southwest US and Mexcio. Opler, Morris Edward. (1941). An Apache life-way: the economic, social, and religious institutions of the Chiricahua Indians.
Arrows used on the hunt are occasionally treated with poison which has strong magical properties: “Get some animal blood. Then take the sharp prongs of plants like the prickly-pear cactus and pound them up with the blood. Allow this to spoil. Put it on the arrow point. Whatever you shoot with it dies. It does not spoil the meat though. It acts the same on humans. It acts like this because the plants used have prickers” (Opler, 319).
Northern Paiute, California. Kelly, Isabel Truesdell. (1934). Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute.
Arrow poison.—Piudy knew only one kind of arrow poison. It was called watsi' and was used for war and for big game, including deer. It took immediate effect, producing swelling, but not affecting the edibility of the meat. “Our poison is made from the deer's akwatsi', black looking stuff on the intestines which looks like the liver but is smaller. Cook it in the ashes and let it dry. It smells bad. Stick the arrowpoint in and let it dry, or rub on the poison with the finger. There is no cure, so you have to be careful, especially if your finger is cut.” (Kelly, 145).
Arunta, Central Australia. Basedow, Herbert. (1925). The Australian aboriginal.
The northern tribes of Western Australia have discovered a simple means of capturing the big struthious bird in that they poison a water known to be frequented by the game. When the bird has quenched its thirst, it is stupefied to such a degree that it is an easy matter for the natives, lying in ambush, to overtake it and crack it on the head. The poison used is supplied by the leaf of Tephrosia purpurea , which the natives call ‘moru ’; the active principle is a saponine. In central Australia the pitjuri leaf is largely used for the same purpose.
Tiwi, Northern Australia. No data.
Manus, Melanesia. No data.
Sirionó, Amazonia. Califano, Mario. (2009). Culture summary: Siriono.
Fishing is an important economic activity of the dry season. Fish are caught with bows and arrows, barbasco (a fish poison), and weirs. Fishing with bows and arrows is a distinctly male activity and involves the capture of large fish like the pacú, the bagre (catfish), the bocachico, and others. Fishing with bows and arrows may be combined with weir fishing when large numbers of fish are trapped. Barbasco is extracted from a wild-growing plant (Hura crepitans); palometa, ventón, and simbado are the most coveted species taken using this poison (Califano, 2).
Warao, Venezuela. Heinen, H. Dieter. (1973). Adaptive changes in a tribal economy: a case study of the Winikina-Warao.
Barbasco and other fish poisons are used sparingly, and only in the early mornings and without undue noise, so as not to annoy the “owner of the fish” (Heinen, 151).
Botocudo, Brazil. Keane, A. H. (1884). On the Botocudos.
It is often stated that in East Brazil the only people that use poisoned arrows are the Caimacans (Camacans), a large family in Bahia and Minas Geraes. But I am assured by Mr. Ribeiro that the same practice also prevails among the Botocudos, who display extraordinary skill in the use of these weapons (Keane, 205).
Xokleng, Brazil. No data.
Abipón, Paraguay. No data.
Enxet and Enlhet, Paraguay. Hawtrey, S. H. C. (1901). The Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco. [Ambiguous, coded as no data]
Poison for arrows may be known, but is not in general use (Hawtrey, 295).
Tehuelche, Argentina. Cooper, John M. (1946). The Patagonian and Pampean hunters. [Ambiguous, though coded as present]
The peoples of the higher Andean Cordillera and the trans-Andine plains were persistently reported by the early Chilean writers to have used poisoned arrows (González de Nájera, 1889, pp. 6, 96; Rosales , 1877–78, 1:239). But whether these reports are fully dependable and whether they concern the ancestors of our Puelche are points that cannot be decided with confidence. (Cf. discussion by McClafferty, 1932, pp. 41–42.) (Cooper, 164).
Yahgan, Tierra del Fuego. No data.