ARROW POISONS AND CURARES
- Arrow poisons
- used medicinally
- usually a "tube" curare
- usually a "calabash" curare
- Other curares
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
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.
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
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
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.
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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. firstname.lastname@example.org.