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The origins of poison arrows date back as far as 70,000 years ago in Africa

By: April Carson

Poison-tipped arrows are a ubiquitous element of cultural stories in the west, from slaying centaurs to biblical mentions. However, their effectiveness in reality cannot be denied. So much so, that indigenous peoples around the world still employ them today, with remarkable success in providing for themselves and their families.

Evidence of this ancient practice dates back as far as 70,000 years ago in Africa.

The Kalahari San of southern Africa employ small bone- or iron-tipped arrows for hunting, which may appear delicate but turn deadly with a coating of poison. The hunter-gatherers use the entrails of beetle larvae, specifically Diamphidia nigroonata, to smear their weapons. The larvae contain a potent diamphotoxin poison, capable of felling an adult giraffe.

In other areas of Africa, such as Senegal or Congo, the arrows are made of cane and tipped with a variety of toxic materials. These can include the venom from snakes, frogs or scorpions, which render their victims immobile within minutes.

Traces of the highly toxic compound ricin on 24,000-year-old wooden applicators found in South Africa's Border cave provide some of the earliest solid evidence of poison use. While archaeologists have long suspected the use of this hunting technique to be much older, new evidence suggests that humans have been shooting poison arrows for the last 72,000 years.

This method of hunting has also been found in other parts of the world, with humans using various plants and animals to make their arrow heads poisonous. For example, arrows used by the Mayans were tipped with poison from frogs that lived near stagnant water ponds. Meanwhile, some American Indian tribes smeared their arrows with rattlesnake venom before shooting them at prey.

Archaeologist Marlize Lombard from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa conducted a comprehensive study on the distinguishing characteristics of poison arrows. By analyzing 128 bone pointed arrows, Lombard compared the unique properties of toxic arrows with those that don't rely on poison.

Non-poison arrows require deep penetration of the prey's body to effectively kill or incapacitate, whereas poisoned ones need only pierce the animal's skin to access its bloodstream. "The use of poison arrows effectively changes the dynamics and dispatch of game," said Lombard.

Lombard used the tip cross-sectional area, an important measure for both prey hide penetration and arrow flight dynamics, to compare arrows across different eras. She specifically studied bone-tipped arrows, since previous research had focused mainly on the more commonly found stone-tipped arrows.

Lombard evaluated the characteristics of 306 bone-point arrows from the Late Stone Age. She found that poisoned arrows from the Holocene period had significantly larger cross-sectional area than non-poisoned ones. The findings suggest that hunters in Africa began using poisons around 70,000 years ago, with the practice likely spreading to other continents over time.

At the Blombos Cave in South Africa, six bone-pointed arrows were discovered, dating back to 72,000-80,000 years. It's interesting to note that three of these arrows possessed properties consistent with poisoned arrowheads.

While the sample size for the oldest arrows is limited, Lombard warns that a metric approach to weapon function can only give us an idea of their potential, not their actual use. Other clues must be taken into account to establish their probable purpose.

"We hypothesize that prehistoric hunters used poison to increase their chances of success and to reduce the effort required for a successful hunt,” Lombard said.

One of the bone points discovered at Klasies River Mouth in South Africa, dating back over 60,000 years, contained micro-cracks suggesting it was used as an arrow. Further analysis revealed a black residue, possibly poison, glue, or both, prompting Lombard and other researchers to investigate.

Throughout history, humans have harnessed the power of poisons from a diverse range of sources, including plants, poison dart frogs, and venomous lizards. Nowadays, some of these poisons hold promising medical applications.

If Lombard's findings are accurate, they demonstrate how this ancient human technology evolved into such a powerful tool that has stood the test of time with flying colors.

Interestingly, this same technology has been used in modern warfare. During World War II, the Japanese employed a deadly type of arrow known as an "airborne arrow bomb" to target Allied shipping vessels. While these lethal arrows were designed to explode on impact, their use is reminiscent of poison-tipped weapons of ancient times.

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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav




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