CHAPTER 12 and lecture material

Many plant products are used in "primitive societies" to capture or kill game. These range from those used to coat or tip arrows and spears to those used to poison or stun fish (sometimes called piscicides or barbascos).
Although we don't often consider it, we have benefited from these unusual (to us) uses in that we use these compounds medicinally and for insecticides.

Curares or arrow poisons
Arrow poisons have been used by almost all primitive societies. Similar substances also were used in Western Europe several thousand years ago. They are still used in South America, some part of Africa, and in Southeast Asia.
The term curare is from a South American aboriginal word. The plants upon which the arrow poisons are based, the method of preparation and the utilization of the materials differ greatly from culture to culture.
In South America, many are based on Strychnos(Loganiaceae) species (often called calabash curares) and others on Chondrodendron(Menispermaceae) (often called tube curares). It should be noted, however, that calabash and tube curares are terms based on the type of containers used and do not say anything about what plants are used to make the arrow poisons. Generally, the correlations noted above hold. Calabashes are small gourds and tube means a section of bamboo. Arrow poisons are also stored in small pottery containers by people of some cultures.

Cissampelos species

The preparation of these mixtures is usually complicated and many plant materials are used in addition to the major active ones. Some of these have been shown to have synergistic effects. Once prepared, the dose is often standardized by shooting small birds or animals of particular species and noting the amount necessary to kill them. Death usually occurs by asphyxiation.
Most curares are not considered toxic orally, but some accounts suggest that consuming them can be hazardous.

In Africa, Strychnosspecies are also often used to make curares.

In Siberia, Alaska, and in Japan (among the Ainu), plants of the genus Aconitum (Ranunculaceae) were favored.

In other areas, plants of the Euphorbiaceae and Apocynaceae containing cardiac glycosides were used.

In general, the active compounds are organic bases called alkaloids. The alkaloids from both tube and calabash curares have been used medicinally. They cause complete relaxation of skeletal muscles. Some of these substances are used in certain types of surgery.

Acokanthera venenata

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Revised April 2005

© David S. Seigler, Integrative Biology 363, Plants and Their Uses, Department of Plant Biology, 265 Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA. 217-333-7577.