Paleolithic man (Paleoindians) hunting a glyptodon – ancient ancestor to the armadillo. (Illustration 1920) Did these societies use poison to bring down their prey?

Invisible Killers - Poisons may have been used by Palaeolithic society 30,000 years ago, new testing shows

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Poisons are ubiquitous in the plant and animal world – some snakes and frogs are venomous, and various trees and plants are lethally toxic. This was well-known by our ancient ancestors, and they extracted such poisons to lace their weapons for hunting and warfare.

A researcher is now on the brink of proving conclusively that Palaeolithic societies used poisons as far back as 30,000 years ago.

Humans have long used poison, most commonly as weapons, antidotes, and medicines. As the advantages became clear, tools and weapons were constructed for poisons specifically. This early chemical warfare began with poisoned arrows and spears. However it has not been established how far back in the past humanity first started using poisons.

Now, PastHorizons reports that a specialist in Palaeolithic hunting weapons and Marie Curie Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research , Dr. Valentina Borgia may be able to prove conclusively when our ancestors poisoned their first weapon.

New forensic chemistry techniques can detect the smallest residues of poison on archaeological artifacts. In a press release , University of Cambridge writes that Borgia has been testing the techniques by examining current museum items, such as; a potted poison from China dated 1926, Malaysian poisoned darts, and African arrows.

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Illustration of Digitalis purpurea – a dangerous and toxic plant called Foxglove.

Illustration of Digitalis purpurea – a dangerous and toxic plant called Foxglove.  Public Domain

Borgia is quoted in the press release: “We know that the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans used plant-based poisons both for hunting animals and in war. In fact, the word ‘toxic’ come from toxon, the Greek for bow. Taxus is a genus of the yew tree with a springy timber traditionally used to make bows. It also produces seeds used to poison arrows. In Britain, yews grown for their timber were planted in churchyards so that animals wouldn’t be poisoned by eating their berries.”

In 2014, Borgia and forensic chemist Michelle Carlin of Northumbria University worked together to perfect techniques for identifying centuries-old poison residues, and then created a database listing toxic plants. The non-destructive testing method used takes into account the delicate nature of archaeological items, and researchers have only to touch an artifact with a cotton ball imbued with pure water to gain the necessary sample, which can then be analyzed.

The Telegraph reports,” Carlin works with organizations like Scotland Yard to analyze residues of illegal drugs such as cocaine by using a specialist technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.”

Poisoned arrows for crossbow, China.

Poisoned arrows for crossbow, China. Credit: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge

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The research team is currently testing a number of stone-tipped Egyptian arrows, dating to 4,000 years B.C.  These arrows were studied decades ago and the efficacy of the black residue on their tips was tested on an unfortunate cat (who reportedly survived but was left paralyzed). The cat was crippled by the ancient poison, proving the lasting resilience of the toxin. Borgia’s new methods of testing artifacts are conducted in such a way to obtain the necessary information while avoiding cruelty to animals.

The new testing techniques as established by Borgia and Carlin may revolutionize poison dating methods, and change how archaeological artifacts are handled.  As archaeologists brush or even wash off finds, important information may be lost.

Borgia says, “Now we have this technique available, and have shown that it works, we need to test it as much as possible on archaeological samples,” according to PastHorizons.

Preparing poison arrows.

Preparing poison arrows. Credit: Carlos Peñalba / Flickr

There have been many famous ancient poison deaths. Cleopatra, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, supposedly killed herself with a bite from a venomous asp after hearing of her husband’s demise, however, some claim that she was murdered by being given a poisonous concoction. Classical Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for the crime of corrupting youth and flouting the state, and he suicided by drinking a hemlock potion. Researchers now propose that Alexander the Great, conqueror of the Persian Empire, may have also succumbed to poison , based on his symptoms.

Hercules killing the Stymphalian birds with toxic arrows. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain).

Hercules killing the Stymphalian birds with toxic arrows. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain). Wikimedia Commons

The irony of the researcher’s name isn’t lost on Dr. Borgia. Her surname has an infamous connection to poisons and politicking in 16 th century Rome.

“Borgia denies that her family name (Lucrezia Borgia is legendary as a devious poisoner) prompted her interest in poisons but she delights in the Latin quip ‘nomen omen’ . It translates roughly as ‘significant name’ and certainly the name Borgia has powerful historic resonances. Luckily for Borgia’s colleagues, her objectives are honorable and entirely academic,” notes PastHorizons.

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