Probing the origins of poison arrows

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A neat article in The Conversation by Justin Bradfield discusses new chemical approaches for identifying traces of poison in the archaeological record: “We’re closer to learning when humans first daubed arrows with poison”.

A recent archaeological discovery at Border Cave (on South Africa’s border with Swaziland), revealed trace amounts of a substance still adhering to a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator. This substance was identified as by-products of the poison ricin. Ricin is produced by the castor bean plant, from which castor oil originates. This discovery, though not without its detractors, sparked renewed interest in identifying poison ingredients on archaeological artefacts in various parts of the world.

It has been interesting to see these aspects of modern technical kits extending far back into the LSA. The development of a hunting tradition using poisons may have had enormous influence on the entire LSA tool repertoire. It may also have established a niche in which human body size and robusticity markedly declined. Yet the basis for the change was archaeologically invisible until very recently.