Scientists Hunt For Secrets Of Poison Arrow Use By African Archers


Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

clockFeb 2 2016, 19:01 UTC
1059 Scientists Hunt For Secrets Of Poison Arrow Use By African Archers
San hunters in Southern Africa possess an intimate knowledge of their environment. erichon/Shutterstock

As social, political and technological advances continue to revolutionize the way in which humans live, certain traditional modes of existence face the prospect of becoming lost forever – and with them, a wealth of indigenous knowledge that may be of use to future generations. In an attempt to preserve some of this ancient wisdom, a new study has been conducted into the ecological practices of the San peoples of southern Africa, focusing on their use of natural poisons to make hunting arrows more deadly.

The term San covers many indigenous groups, currently numbering around 113,000 individuals across six countries. Some of these communities still practice limited hunting and gathering, particularly those living in the area around the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia, where the use of bows and arrows for hunting remains legal.


Reviewing the existing literature, the study authors found what they believe to be the earliest reference to the use of poison arrows in southern Africa, in a report dating back to 1779. Over the following centuries, a number of dubious accounts surfaced, containing highly unlikely and often contradictory information about the origins and nature of the poisons used.

In light of this lack of trustworthy data, the researchers headed to Namibia, where they conducted fieldwork with two groups of San hunters in order to document their methods for collecting poisons. Publishing their findings in the journal ZooKeys, they report how the poisons used by Ju|’hoan and Hai||om hunters are highly diverse, pointing to “an incredibly intimate knowledge of their environment.”

The Ju|’hoan, for instance, extract their hunting poisons from the larvae of several beetles, including Diamphidia Gerstaecker and Polyclada Chevrolat. To obtain these, the San dig for cocoons beneath the ground, before cracking these open to remove the larvae. The infant insects’ circulatory fluid, called hemolymph, is then mixed with saliva and applied to arrows.


The Hai||om, meanwhile, use the sap of a plant from the Apocynaceae family, which they boil in order to reduce it to a thick paste. This is then used to coat arrowheads, due to its paralyzing effect once it enters the bloodstream.

Commenting on the motivation behind the study, lead researcher Caroline Chaboo explained that “Indigenous knowledge – accumulated over long periods of observations and experiences – holds deep insight about nature. Such knowledge can improve the quality of science and other fields and may offer resolutions to some pressing problems. For example, the San can teach us how to live better in a hotter world with diminishing drinking water.”

  • tag
  • environment,

  • ecology,

  • hunter gatherer,

  • poison arrow,

  • San peoples,

  • indigenous,

  • native,

  • southern Africa,

  • beetle larvae