How Namibia’s San people prepare poison-tipped arrows

New York, Feb 2 (IANS) A new study has shed light on how the San people of Namibia collect beetle poison, prepare it and apply it to boost the lethality of their arrows.

For the study published in the journal ZooKeys, the researchers synthesised historical and anthropological literature and conducted their own fieldwork to better grasp how the San use beetle poisons.

“The San are traditional hunter-gatherers and thus have a special place in the history of man. As I learned more about the modern San, their history, weak political status and endangered languages and cultures, it became urgent to me to document this aspect of their culture,” said lead author Caroline Chaboo, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas in the US.

“Arrow-hunting appears in ancient rock-paintings of the San, but it is unclear when poisons might have been adopted,” Chaboo said.

“We suspect poisons were adopted very early,” Chaboo noted.

She said the San use arrows to hunt large game like antelope, buffalo, cheetah, eland, elephant, gazelle, giraffe, impala, lion, puku, springbok, warthog, wildebeest and zebra.

The researchers wanted to explore how the San collect beetle poison, prepare it and apply it to arrows.

“In general, the beetle larvae are harvested by digging up soil around the host, sifting out the cocoons to take home,” Chaboo said.

“Later, the cocoons are cracked open and the beetle larvae extracted. Some San hunters squeeze the beetle body fluids out onto the arrowhead, or they make a concoction with other plant juices,” she noted.

The arrow preparer is very careful in handling all the materials and in storing the poisoned arrows and remaining cocoons away from the community, Chaboo pointed out.

Chaboo said the poison slowly brings about paralysis in the prey of San hunters, although the biological mechanism remains unclear.

“The poison is a slow-acting paralysing poison,” she said.

“The animal continues to run after being hit, but over the next few hours, the animal becomes increasingly unable to move well, and it finally falls over. Then the hunter can finish off the animal. Cell breakdown and interference with cell membrane channels are implicated.”

Indeed, this slow chase by the hunter is the basis for the San’s famous tracking culture, the study said.

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