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Curare darts and quiver.

Ancient Amazonian Poison Vanishes Unsettling Dutch Police

Dutch police in the town of Leiden are on a manhunt for archaeological thieves who audaciously broke into an outbuilding of the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. Looking for cash they raided the museum safe and made off with a potentially deadly South American poison used by tribal hunters to make their arrow tips lethal.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning the opportunistic thieves stole, “the refrigerator-sized, safe in which the ancient vial holding the poison was being stored” according to a report in 7 News . Amito Haarhuis, director of the national Dutch museum of science and medicine, told reporters at AFP, "It's a poison called curare, which is used in South America on arrows to kill animals," adding, "It was offered to us recently as part of a collection, but we decided we didn't want to have it. So we locked it in the safe and we are going to have it destroyed safely.”

Museum Boerhaave – Anatomisch Theater. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

Museum Boerhaave – Anatomisch Theater. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

According to Britannia Science the word 'curare' is derived from  wurari, from the Carib language of the  MacusiIndians of Guyana. The name describes various ‘plant extract alkaloid extract poisons’ which function by inhibiting the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) located at the neuromuscular junction. Although harmless when consumed, if so much as a microgram is administered via the blood stream within a few seconds the victim experiences muscular weakness before death, which is caused by asphyxiation due to paralysis of the diaphragm.

A Yagua (Yahua) tribeman demonstrating the use of blowgun (blow dart), at one of the Amazonian islands near Iquitos, Peru. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Yagua (Yahua) tribeman demonstrating the use of blowgun (blow dart), at one of the Amazonian islands near Iquitos, Peru. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Many historians claim that the first western record of this deadly drug was written in 1596 when Sir  Walter Raleigh  mentioned a type of arrow poison in his book  Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana , but it was not until1895 that the pharmacologist Rudolf Boehm categorized the drug into three main types of curare: bamboo curare is when it’s packed into hollow bamboo tubes, pot curare sees it placed in terra cotta pots and gourd curare is when the chemical is stuffed in hollowed gourds.

However, like so many of nature’s poisons, in small doses the source plant of curare, Chondrodendron tomentosum, is used as a muscle relaxant and two of its rare alkaloids,  vincristine and vinblastine are widely used as chemotherapeutic agents in the treatment of many types of cancer.

The stolen poison was reported as being “quite dried out and looks like a small "black sugar cube" contained in an ancient glass pot with a red lid, and a label saying "Curare". Police released a public warning that it was "very toxic and can be fatal," should anyone find it.

Top image: Curare darts and quiver. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ashley Cowie

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