How San tribesmen of Kalahari Desert harvest poison from beetles to hunt big animals in the wild

Stephen Nartey December 03, 2022
Beetle. Image via Wiki

In the 17th and 19th centuries, the San people of South Africa commanded a lot of fear among neighboring communities and visitors to the Kalahari Desert because of their knowledge and use of poison to cause lethal harm. Research recently found out that the San people who are generally hunter-gatherers use poisoned-tipped arrows to hunt for meat in the wild.

The poison is derived from toxic beetle larvae like diamphidia and plant poisons such as sansevieria aethiopica which is added to strengthen the poison’s potency, according to Mongabay. The findings which were published in Zookeys said other elements that the hunter-gatherers relied on to make poison are the ground-up beetle larvae paste and other poisonous plant species.

Anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the research paper Robert Hitchcock said their interest was in how and why people adopted such natural ingredients in the preparation of poison. He disclosed that their engagement with the hunter-gatherers pointed to the fact that the plant poisons gave them an added advantage in their hunting expedition.

The use of beetle larvae as poison for hunting arrows is not the preserve of one ethnic group among the San people but eight groups in South Africa. The beetles that are still used in the present-day are from two main groups — Diamphidia and Polyclada.

In how the hunter-gatherers collect beetles and prepare their poison, they first head into the desert in search of plants that attract the arrow-poison beetles. When they spot such plant species, they dig shallow trenches around the plant and allow the beetles fall in. They then separate the sand from their beetles and pour the cocoons from the beetles into an ostrich egg.

They crack open the cocoon, draw out the beetle larvae, and crash the larvae on an old giraffe or kudu knuckle bone. In some instances, the hunters use their mouths in the preparation of the beetle poison by chewing the bark of a plant called Black thorn and applying saliva on the larvae. After this, the beetle paste is placed on the tip of the arrow with the use of a little stick.

When the beetle poison hits an animal, it slows its ability to run. The hunters slowly follow the game and wait for the poison to take full effect to force the animal to fall to the ground. The hunters pull a club and strike the game a number of times to kill it afterward.

So far, scientists have not been able to establish the chemical elements that paralyze the animal after they have been hit by the arrow-poisoned tip. Though the researchers were unable to determine why the toxins in the beetles and plants cause those effects in the animals, they were of the view that they have some advantage in protecting the beetles from harsh climatic conditions.

The researchers found that many San tribes rely on different types of beetles and plants to make their arrows extremely poisonous. There are fears however that this art of harvesting poison from plants and beetles could phase out because the only place in Africa where people are allowed to use bows and arrows to hunt is the Nyae Nyae Conservance region.

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