A poisoned chalice: investigating the presence of poisons on Palaeolithic arrows

Valentina Borgia, Michelle Carlin, Jacopo Crezzini

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOtherpeer-review


Ethnographic documentation tells us that very often hunters poison their weapons with toxic substances. The ease with which poisons can be obtained from plants and animals, and the benefits arising from their application when throwing weapons (a safe distance from the hunter's prey, killing large size prey relatively quickly) suggests that this practice could be widespread among prehistoric hunters. In particular, the poisonous substances can incapacitate the animal, irrespective of whether the weapon causes a mortal wound: this is crucial for the recovery of meat and furs in good conditions. In this paper we present the development of a method for the detection of toxic substances on European Upper Paleolithic stone and bone points. This research is part of a wider project on the analysis of residues on the prehistoric projectile points in collaboration with the Department of Chemical and Forensic Sciences of the Northumbria University, Newcastle. The investigation makes use of mass spectrometric analysis to establish the presence/absence of potentially toxic substances even after thousands of years. The plants of the Ranunculaceae family, particularly monkshood, as well as other common toxic plants such as hemlock or strychnos toxiferia (curare) are those on which we have more historical information and form the basis of this work. Using a completely non-invasive method, based on the extraction with deionised water, samples were taken from the ethnographic materials preserved in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Cambridge (UK), and samplings are scheduled at the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford (UK) and Museo Etnografico Pigorini of Roma (Italy). The project previews the research of the toxic molecules starting from the present plants and working backwards through the study of the ethnographic and historical weapons: in particular the iron points used by Romans and Gauls, sometimes poisoned with aconite. The method will therefore be applied to the prehistoric material.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2014
EventXVII Congreso Mundial UISPP - Burgos, Spain
Duration: 1 Sept 2014 → …


ConferenceXVII Congreso Mundial UISPP
Period1/09/14 → …


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