danger palaeo poison

A new forensic test suggests hunting with poisoned arrows might actually be much older than previously thought, but archaeologists have been accidentally getting rid of the evidence.

We know that the Babylonians hunted with plant-based poisons and that many people still do today, but archaeologists have a hunch that people have been doing this since the palaeolithic. The problem is, they’ve been accidentally getting rid of the evidence.

Now, a crack team of archaeologists and forensic chemists have joined forces to recover the evidence and find out if palaeolithic hunters used poisoned arrows.

Effective weaponry?

Dr Valentina Borgia is a specialist in palaeolithic hunting weapons and has teamed up with forensic chemist Michelle Carlin from Northumbria University to carry out this highly significant research.

Arrowheads

As Borgia points out, palaeolithic weapons alone probably weren’t effective enough at killing larger animals. It makes sense that they might have used poisons, which would have weakened or killed the animals when hunting.

Poisonous plants are plentiful and prehistoric people would probably (definitely!) have known which plants were edible and which had horrible effects.

Lethal landscapes

These plants can kill

The entrance to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Garden, where Borgia collected many of her samples.

From foxgloves to hemlock, poisonous plants are found throughout the world. We know the ancient Greeks poisoned their arrowheads with toxic seeds from a type of yew (Taxus baccata ), and many North Asian societies used Monkshood (Aconitum) to kill larger animals.

CSI archaeology

As a forensic chemist, Carlin works on the detection of illegal substances using a specialist technique known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (basically separating out chemicals and identifying them by their mass).

It’s the same method that’s used to detect invisible traces of drugs and illegal substances, but now, Carlin and Borgia are using it to identify traces of poison on archaeological objects from thousands of years ago!

Deadly samples

Borgia started by collecting toxic plants around the world, some of which require special permission from the Home Office to handle and creating a database of their chemical signatures. Next, they took residue samples from objects in museum collections.

They started testing objects around 100 years old which were known to have come in to contact with poisons, in order to confirm whether after all this time, the residues still contained their chemical identifiable characteristics and were easily detectable.

Next, they took six stone tipped Egyptian arrows from 6,000 years ago, also known to have been poisoned. The tests were successful once again, and even identified that the poison was Acokanthera.

Now that the method is proven to work, it’s time to test as many Palaeolithic archaeological objects as possible. But there’s one small problem…

Cleaning up the crime scene

Archaeologists typically remove the bulk of dirt and soil from artefacts before sending them off for analysis and “potwashing” is a popular activity on many digs, but archaeologists are careful not to be overzealous and dislodge any cooking residues that could be examined back in the lab.

Now, Borgia is appealing to archaeologists to apply the same logic to weapons and leave dirty them on discovery. And that’s why being clean isn’t always beneficial for archaeologists… you could (accidentally) be cleaning up a crime scene.

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Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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