Poison arrows and bone utensils in late Pleistocene eastern Africa: evidence from Kuumbi Cave, Zanzibar. Four of the projectile point fragments recovered from Kuumbi Cave: A, C, and G impact fractures; B and D possible retrieval cut marks; E rounded tip; F post-depositional fracture revealing bone surface; H change in surface appearance.

Poison arrows and bone utensils in late Pleistocene eastern Africa: evidence from Kuumbi Cave, Zanzibar. Four of the projectile point fragments recovered from Kuumbi Cave: A, C, and G impact fractures; B and D possible retrieval cut marks; E rounded tip; F post-depositional fracture revealing bone surface; H change in surface appearance. Photo: Taylor Francis Online | Michelle C. Langleya, Mary E. Prendergast, Ceri Shipton, Eréndira M. Quintana Morales, Alison Crowther, Nicole Boivin.

Many animals use poison in the wild to help them bring down prey. Venom from snakes, spiders, and scorpions are the most frequent sources for these concoctions.

Observing plant and animal life may have give humans the idea to use poisons as a weapon for hunting. A variety of plants and animals use toxins to repel predators. A number individual plants or animals may fall to predation, but eventually predators will learn to avoid eating them.

Human use of poisons generally conjures mystery novels or espionage thrillers. We shouldn’t overlook human’s use of poison to kill their prey—this is fact, not fiction.

Evidence has been discovered that human cultures in southern Africa were using bone arrows dipped in poison about 24,000 years Before Present (BP). These weapons were used to harvest large game, including zebra and buffalo.

Humans in eastern Africa had used using similar technology as early as 13,000 BP. In the Kuumbi Cave of Zanzibar, researchers found bone tools, including a awl and several arrowheads. They also discovered charcoal left over from burning Mikunazi plants, which have poisonous fruit and indicates they may have been processing poisons.

When humans have resorted to using poison on arrowheads, it has generally been because the technology they have at hand, such as bone tools, aren’t sufficient to take down the prey they want to hunt. Early arrowheads, and early bows, often lacked the power to take down larger animals, and so poison was used to improve their efficiency as hunters.

An accurate attack would introduce poison that would slow or potentially kill a zebra, for example, making it much easier for a hunter to harvest enough food for their group.

The arrowheads found in Kuumbi Cave were short and narrow, likely designed to pierce an animal’s hide, but not to sever arteries as more advanced arrowheads were designed.

Technology of this type was probably crucial to the survival of the people who lived in and around Kuumbi Cave 13,000 years ago, and illustrates just how much ingenuity went into human survival.

About 

Martin Ackerman is a freelance writer and current editor originally from Staten Island, NY. His university schooling focused on English education and Japanese. He has a (not so secret) passion for art history and political science. When he isn't writing or editing you can find him at sci-tech conventions, building the latest LEGO city or pampering his cat, Tea. You can follow him on Twitter @MarMackerman.