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Poisoned Arrows
By Dr. W.J. Hoffman
From: Arrows and Arrow-Makers, The American Anthropologist, Vol. IV., No.1, pp. 67-71. Washington D.C., January, 1891.
Part 1 of 2

In making a brief reference to the poisoning of arrows it is not practicable to discuss the philosophy of the question. Primitive man is not a toxicologist, and probably owes his knowledge of the effects of venom, vegetal poisons, and putrid animal matter, to actual observation. These effects, however, are in his mind attributable, not to septic or other poison per se,but to the supposed presence of malevolent spirits or demons which enter the body of the victim and destroy life. Apart from this, substances are employed also on account of their association with something peculiar to the plant or animal from which they may be derived, as will be observed farther on.

Poisoned arrows were apparently used in prehistoric times[1] in Europe. Later on, in the fourth century, Quintillian, lieutenant of Maximus, encountered the Franks upon a barricade of trunks of trees, from which height they threw poisoned arrows as from cata-paults. Wounds inflicted by these weapons were sure to cause death.[2] The Celts and Gauls, according to Aristotle, Strabo, and Pliny, poisoned their arrows with the juice of a plant of the genus hellebore, called lineum. The Dalmatians and Daces employed the Aster helenium.[3]

The Scythians, according to Aristotle, prepared their arrow poison by mixing serpent venom with the serum of putrid blood. Other instances are related in classic literature of peoples of the Black Sea and in Asia Minor who practiced similar arts, but the preceding allusions will suffice.

The Ainos of Japan prepare a poison which is spread upon bamboo or metal arrow-points. It is stated that game killed by thismeans is eaten without injury, a small portion of the flesh surrounding the wound only being cut away. The practice obtains to considerable extent in Java, Borneo, New Guinea, and other of the East India Islands, the famous Upas poison being obtained chiefly from Strychnos tiute and Antiaris toxicaria.[4]

The practice of poisoning arrows prevails extensively in Africa, the most conspicuous localities being the west coast, in the Gaboon, among the Somali, in the neighborhood of Bunder Marayah, and among the Bushmen. The latter employ the juice of a Euphorbia mixed with the pulp of a venomous worm. A certain species of bulb—Hæmanthus toxicarius—also enters into the composition of one variety of poison.

The best known and most active of arrow poisons is the Woorara or Urari, of the northern portion of South America. Drs. Hammond and Mitchell[5] have published extensively their researches regarding this substance. This is chiefly used on the tips of darts blown from the sarabacana or blow-gun. The composition varies somewhat, according to the tribe making it. The chief active ingredient appears to be the juice of Strychnos toxicaria, though to this are added other vegetal substances and serpent venom. This poison is known under a variety of names, according to locality and tribe. In Central America poisons are also used, both upon arrows and blow-gun darts. The Caribs employed a poison made from the sap of a tree termed the "Mancenilles."[6]The antidote was the application to the wound of a poultice of a farinaceous substance, which subsequently became known to us as arrow-root. The natives of Florida are reported by various authors to have been acquainted with arrow poison, and Pontius, when in search of the Fountain of Youth, is said to have been wounded by a poisoned arrow, from the effect of which he died.[7]

Considering the status of the Nahuatl or Aztecs and their geographic position, surrounded by peoples familiar with this practice, it appears rather singular that no reference is made by any of the historians to the use of poisoned arrows, although possibly they possessed a knowledge of poison for internal administration, as is indicated by the statement that Tecocis, the predecessor of Axayaca, son of Montezuma, was poisoned because of his cowardice and aversion to war.[8]