Arrow poison

Arrow poisons are used to poison arrow heads or darts for the purposes of hunting and warfare. 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] Poisoned arrows are referred to in the Book of Job in the Bible, descriptive of the sufferings experienced by the just man, Job.[3]

The modern terms "toxic" and "toxin" derive from the ancient Greek word for "bow", toxon, from Old Persian *taxa-, "an arrow".[4][5][6]

Poisoned arrows were used by real people 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]

In the Kingdom of Kush, arrows were often poison-tipped. There is some indication that poisoned arrows were used in battle against the Romans from 27 BC to 22 BC.[7]

The use of poisoned arrows in hunting and warfare by some Native Americans has also been documented.[8]

Over the ages, Chinese warfare has included projectiles poisoned with various toxic substances.[9]


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 South America, tribes such as the Noanamá Chocó and Emberá Chocó of western Colombia dip the tips of their blowgun darts in the poison found on the skin of three species of Phyllobates, a genus of poison dart frog. In northern Chocó Department, Phyllobates aurotaenia is used, while P. bicolor is used in Risaralda Department and southern Chocó. In Cauca Department, only P. terribilis is used for dart making. The poison is generally collected by roasting the frogs over a fire, but the batrachotoxins in P. terribilis are powerful enough that it is sufficient to dip the dart in the back of the frog without killing it.
  • 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, including humans, can survive 4–5 days before succumbing to the effects.[20]
  • In the United States, Native American tribes used venomous reptiles to provide the poisons required. In the Southwest United States, the Gila monster, being one of the only two venomous lizards, has been used as a source.
  • There is evidence of Pacific Island cultures using poison arrow and spear tips. An account from Hector Holthouse's book "Cannibal Cargoes"[21] (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 notched 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.[17]

See also


  1. "Curare". Archived from the original on 10 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-09.
  2. Mayor, Adrienne (2009). Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Revised ed.). The Overlook Press. ISBN 978-1-59020-177-0.
  3. Job 6:4
  4. Archived 2012-07-02 at the Wayback Machine, A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  5., Online Etymology Dictionary, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  6., The Free Dictionary, Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  7. David Nicolle, Angus McBride. 1991. Rome's Enemies 5: The Desert Frontier. p. 11-15
  8. Jones, David E (2007). Poison Arrows: North American Indian Hunting and Warfare. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71428-1.
  9. Sawyer, Ralph D (2007). The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-07205-7.
  10. "Definition of inee". Webster's International Dictionary. 1913. Archived from the original on 2012-02-16. Retrieved 2006-08-09.
  11. Quattrocchi, Umberto (2012). CRC World dictionary of medicinal and poisonous plants: common names, scientific names, eponyms, synonyms and etymology. Vol. IV, M-Q. CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group. page 2564.
  12. "Poisoned arrows". Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 25 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-10.
  13. St. George, George (1974). Soviet Deserts and Mountains. Amsterdam: Time-Life International.
  14. Peissel, Michel (1984). The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas. London Harvill Press. pp. 99–100. ISBN 9780002725149.
  15. Hooker, Joseph Dalton (1854). Himalayan Journals or Notes of a Naturalist. London: John Murray. p. 168. Retrieved 2006-09-17.
  16. Hutton, J. H. (July 1924). "The occurrence of the Blow-Gun in Assam". Man. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 24: 106. doi:10.2307/2788776. JSTOR 2788776.
  17. Song, Yingxing; Sun, Shiou-chuan; Sun, E-tu Zen (1996). Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century: T'ien-kung K'ai-wu. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-486-29593-0.
  18. 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.
  19. Jones, David E (2007). Poison Arrows: North American Indian Hunting and Warfare. University of Texas Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-292-71428-1. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
  20. "How San hunters use beetles to poison their arrows". Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Archived from the original on 2006-05-06. Retrieved 2006-08-09.
  21. p. 141
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