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Poison Arrows

Poison Arrows
North American Indian Hunting and Warfare

A provocative, comprehensive survey of organic compounds used as poisons—on arrows and spears, in food, and even as insecticides—by numerous Native American tribes.

January 2007
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
136 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

Biological warfare is a menacing twenty-first-century issue, but its origins extend to antiquity. While the recorded use of toxins in warfare in some ancient populations is rarely disputed (the use of arsenical smoke in China, which dates to at least 1000 BC, for example) the use of "poison arrows" and other deadly substances by Native American groups has been fraught with contradiction. At last revealing clear documentation to support these theories, anthropologist David Jones transforms the realm of ethnobotany in Poison Arrows.

Examining evidence within the few extant descriptive accounts of Native American warfare, along with grooved arrowheads and clues from botanical knowledge, Jones builds a solid case to indicate widespread and very effective use of many types of toxins. He argues that various groups applied them to not only warfare but also to hunting, and even as an early form of insect extermination. Culling extensive ethnological, historical, and archaeological data, Jones provides a thoroughly comprehensive survey of the use of ethnobotanical and entomological compounds applied in wide-ranging ways, including homicide and suicide. Although many narratives from the contact period in North America deny such uses, Jones now offers conclusive documentation to prove otherwise.

A groundbreaking study of a subject that has been long overlooked, Poison Arrows imparts an extraordinary new perspective to the history of warfare, weaponry, and deadly human ingenuity.

  • Introduction
  • 1. On Plant Poisons
  • 2. Nonmilitary Poisons
  • 3. World Survey of Arrow Poisoning
  • 4. Arrow Poisons of the North American Indians
  • 5. Other Uses of Poisons in Warfare
  • 6. Paleo-Indian Poison Use
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: North American Indian Tribes That Used Arrow Poison and Types of Poison Used
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

David E. Jones is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.


The late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a renewed concern among nations of the world regarding the use of biological and chemical weapons of war, especially by terrorists and so-called rogue nations. The fact that all major nations possess extensive weapons laboratories and production facilities, combined with events of the past several decades, illustrates that anxiety over these weapons is firmly based in reality.

In 1968 at Dugway, Utah, a laboratory testing an extremely toxic agent precipitated a chemical cloud that killed 6,000 sheep. The plant was later closed. An accidental release of aerosol in 1979 from Compound 19, a biological weapons plant in Sverdlovsk, Russia, killed sixty-six people who were directly downwind. On April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Republic of Belarus, a reactor mishap released approximately seventy radioactive substances, affecting to some extent almost the entire population of the republic and forcing the evacuation of 24,000.

More ominous than accidental assaults are intentional applications of biological and chemical agents. In 1988, the Iraqi government attacked the Kurdish village of Birjinni with the nerve agent sarin, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children. In the 1980s, chemical weapons were reported in Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. In 1995, the Aum Shinri Kyo cult released sarin in Tokyo's subway system during rush hour, injuring 5,500 and killing 11. Americans were terrorized in 2001 and 2002 with the specter of anthrax-tainted mail moving through the postal system, and in January 2003, several men were arrested for producing ricin, a poison more deadly than sarin, in a small apartment in London. In 1997, then Secretary of Defense William Cohen singled out Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Syria as countries aggressively seeking nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

It is safe to say that the threat of biological and chemical weapons against the U.S. military and civilian population is greater now than at any time in our nation's history. Unlike military hardware, which can cost millions of dollars and require large production facilities with highly trained staff, these weapons are relatively inexpensive and easy to produce in small spaces. They are difficult to detect and could, if used with tactical expertise, kill many of an enemy population, military and civilian alike.

Appearing to be growing in its potential menace, poison warfare can be defined as employing toxic agents to kill, injure, or impair an enemy combatant. Biological warfare employs living organisms—most commonly disease microorganisms such as the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax) and the contagious febrile (fever) smallpox virus to threaten men, animals, or plants.

Chemical warfare kills or impairs the enemy with poisonous corrosives, smoke, mists, and asphyxiating gas, with the most modern form being radioactivity. Some, chlorine gas for example, must be inhaled whereas others, such as mustard gas, need only touch the skin. Many—poisoned arrows, darts, spear points, or knives—must be injected. Both chemical and biological warfare are tactical, and neither is suited for the large-scale battlefield although modern military technology is rapidly solving the problem of wide-ranging deployment.

Chemicals in warfare date to 1000 BC when the Chinese dispersed arsenical smoke in battle. Six hundred years later, the Spartans fought the Athenian-allied cities during the Peloponnesian War with "beam smoke" (formula unknown), and Scythian archers dipped their war arrows in blood, manure, and decomposing bodies. In the sixth century BC, the Assyrians poisoned their enemy's drinking water with rye ergot. During the siege of Krissa in the same century, Solon used the poisonous herb hellebore in a similar attack. When Hannibal attacked the ships of Pegamus at Eurymedon in 190 BC, he ordered poisonous snakes thrown onto the enemy's decks prior to attempts at boarding.

Plague spread among the defenders of Kaffa (present-day Feodosia in Crimea) in 1346 when attackers hurled infected corpses over the city walls. In 1710, the Russians used the same tactic against the Swedish army. Polish artillery general Siemenowics filled hollow canister shells with the saliva of rabid dogs and fired them against his adversaries in 1650.

In the fifteenth century, Francisco Pizarro gave contaminated blankets to the native populations he encountered in South America, and Sir Jeffrey Amherst distributed smallpox-laden blankets to Indians loyal to the French during the French and Indian War (1756-1763). The resulting epidemic led to the loss of Fort Carillon to the English.

In 1855, when the British and Russians were bogged down in trench warfare, Sir Lyon Playfair proposed to the British high command that they place cyanide in artillery shells and shoot them into the Russian ranks. His suggestion was rejected as inhumane. Using a rationale that would appear from time to time in future discussions on the morality of chemical warfare, he argued for its civility, noting that the doomed enemy would die quickly.

Modern chemical warfare traces its history to World War I and one man, Dr. Fritz Haber, a Nobel laureate and world-famous chemist who had developed a process for extracting nitrates from the atmosphere to produce fertilizers and explosives. He came to understand that the poisonous by-products of his chemical research could have military significance. He experimented with numerous agents before fixing upon chlorine, but when he suggested it as a weapon to the German high command, they turned him away, calling the use of poison gas ungentlemanly. They shifted their position in 1915 when they found themselves stalemated in trench warfare on the western front. Haber was granted an officer's rank and instructed to organize a chemical corps.

The first chlorine gas attack took place April 22, 1915, against French and Algerian troops dug in at Ypres, Belgium. When the Germans released 180 kilograms of the gas, it stripped the linings from soldiers' lungs, causing them to drown in their own fluids. Two days later, the Germans attacked Canadian lines with similar results. In two days of fighting, five thousand Allies were killed and ten thousand more disabled, many of them permanently.

By late 1915, the Germans had developed phosgene gas, an agent ten times more deadly than chlorine. The Allies, not far behind, accelerated their own chemical programs. The French and Germans were exchanging toxin-filled artillery shells in 1916, and the British added large-scale gas barrages the following year.

Livens Projectors, three-foot-long metal tubes first used in battle by the British in 1917, were positioned in the ground at a forty-five degree angle. Each tube held a thirty-pound canister of gas—in this case, phosgene—and was armed and fired electrically. The cylinders could reach almost a mile, and their impact triggered a small discharge that exploded the tubes. During the system's debut, the British fired 2,340 canisters, releasing nearly fifty tons of liquid phosgene that instantly vaporized into clouds of poisonous gas. The Livens Projectors granted a temporary edge to the British in gas warfare, but soon the Germans countered with mustard gas, which was designed to attack exposed skin.

Approximately 113,000 tons of chemical weapons were used in World War I, killing some 92,000 men and wounding 1.3 million. The chemical aspects of the warfare were so devastating that the hostile nations of World War II were loath to use it; however, during this time the Germans developed tabun, sarin, and soman—three of the most deadly chemical weapons ever created.

The preceding abbreviated overview of Western military chemical warfare was recounted conventionally. True to the conceit of the West that its culture was modeled after that of the Ancients, most Western military historians cite them (classical Greeks and Romans) before focusing on Western European history. Are we to believe that only the Greeks, Romans, and a few kingdoms of the Near East used poisons in warfare? The anthropological record clearly refutes this impression. In fact, from the dawn of recorded history, humans worldwide have possessed detailed knowledge of how to kill with chemicals.

I became interested in non-Western chemical warfare while pursuing research on native North American armor, shields, and fortifications. In almost every case in which armor was used by North American Indian groups, they were fighting enemies who had poisoned arrows. Because armor was found from the Bering Straits to the Southeast and from Canada to New Mexico, chemical poisons likewise had a wide distribution.

Most reports I encountered, however, claimed that poisoned arrows were neither important, common, nor effective. One source states that "[t]here were but a few tribes that used poisoned arrows. The poisoning of arrows was not generally popular among the natives of North America." Another comments that "[p]oisoned arrows were not so widely used by the Indians as is commonly assumed from the exaggerated accounts of the Spanish conquistadors." And another says that "the narrative accounts by early explorers from the Florida tribes northward to the Great Lakes have treated arrow poisoning so casually that speculative reasoning has not been swayed to the affirmative by the few references given ... previously. The subject has been treated only briefly and with considerable hesitation." Others cite references but remain doubtful of the ubiquity of the practice.

Some of the early reporters seem ambivalent and even contradictory about the presence and efficacy of poisoned arrows. One such account begins with a description of a cavalry mount that had been shot with a poisoned arrow by a Navaho warrior. "He swelled up enormously, evidently suffered much pain, and died in the course of a night, certainly from the effects of a poison, as the wound inflicted by the arrow was not mortal, neither from its seat or its severity. Of course, a wound of this nature, if it involves parts beyond reach of knife or cautery, is fatal." However, the account continues, "Strange to say such arrows are of infrequent use. Among some seventy-six cases of arrow wounds received from Navaho, Apache, and Utah Indians, we have seen no case of poisoned arrow wounds in the human subject, nor have we heard of such a case after careful inquiry."

An observer writes of the Indians of California, "[H]ere I may mention, no arrow-poison; but I have known some of the California Indians to get a rattlesnake, and irritate it until it had repeatedly struck into the liver of some animal, impregnating it with its virus. They would then dip their arrows into this poisoned mess."

One commentator dismisses the issue of poisoned arrows: "The arrowheads used by Native Americans against each other and against newcomers occasionally carried poisons but they really didn't need to. The Indians were such skilled bowmen that any enhancement to the basics was normally unnecessary. The toxic effect of 'poisoned-tipped' arrows has always been overplayed by Hollywood, so much so that contaminated arrowheads have become an essential ingredient in the collective consciousness of the West. Such is the power of the modern media."

The report continues: "The Indians' use of viscera from all types of animals as the poisoning agent is the stuff of legend. One band of Apaches, the Lipans, dipped their arrows into the sap of the Yucca, which they thought was very poisonous. According to the natives, the points of the Yucca possess a mystic power that will adversely affect anyone hit by an arrow dipped in its sap." The author perhaps alludes to the Lipan Apache belief in the toxicity of Yucca tips as stemming from the so-called Doctrine of Signatures, found in the belief systems of many cultures, where every medicinal plant has a "sign" that reveals its therapeutic properties. Thus, the Zuni, for example, use the root of a plant they call hoktdidasha (cougar) because of its resemblance to a cougar's tail. In this case, the animal's strength and appearance suggest the medicinal value of the plant. A plant with a long, twisted root may be seen as suitable to treat snakebite; dandelions, because of their color, might be considered efficacious in the treatment of jaundice; and the needle-sharp spines of the Yucca denote its value as a poison.

Some authors who deny the existence or effectiveness of Indian war poisons offer as proof the chanting and magico-religious ritual behavior associated in some tribes with its manufacture. Most societies, however, precede a dangerous endeavor with some type of group repetition of essential principles to which they must adhere for the sake of safety or success. This does not define the undertaking as fraudulent. A particular code of procedure chanted prior to a perilous activity serves to reinforce safe behavior and coordinate the behavior of participants.

An army surgeon wrote of an Apache poisoned-arrow wound that was "a mere scratch upon the upper portion of the scapula, but previous to death the flesh fell from the back as far down as the nates, exposing at various points the ribs and spinal process." That horrific description should have impressed the author, who, after quoting the surgeon, claimed that the Apache believed that their poisoned points had only a "mystical power."

Other authorities were woefully uninformed. An author of a surgical textbook states that the Paiutes were the only tribe of North American Indians who poisoned their arrows, and another reports, "There is no record of any California Indians using poisons to take human life, for murder, or to kill off their enemies." A body of literature, however, cites the use of poison arrows by California tribes, including citations on a number of plants with which they poisoned their arrows for hunting and warfare.

A novel dismissal of poison arrows is found in a letter from John Clayton, a minister at Jamestown between 1684 and 1686, to his friend Dr. Jeremiah Grew about the medical practices of the Virginia Indians:

But any herbs wherewith they poison their darts I never could hear specify'd. And as persons engaged in long marches are liable to many accidents which may contribute to an ill state of health, when a slight wound in battle has often proved mortal this I apprehend to have been the cause why the physician has rather chosen to attribute the death of his patient to the dart, than the want of skill in himself.

By ignoring three bodies of information, the preceding authors have added to the confusion surrounding North American Indian biological and chemical warfare. A reasonable approach to the subject must include an exhaustive study of North American Indian ethnobotany (with an eye toward knowledge of poisons); a worldwide sample of poison-arrow use to evaluate North American Indians in a global perspective; and a contemporary and wide-ranging appreciation of North American Indian warfare, weapons, and tactics. Information gleaned from these areas will demonstrate that at the time of contact, poison arrows were found in all culture areas of Native North America, and they were quite effective in warfare.

Gathering substantive information proved difficult for a number of reasons. Most accounts indicate that poison making was, with few exceptions, limited to certain men; women, in the main, were not privy to this knowledge. Because only a few people in a particular group could offer expert commentary on the existence and nature of the practice, the avenues for investigators were limited.

Further, as with armor use by North American Indians, only a brief period existed when poison-arrow usage could be catalogued. Both armor and poison arrows disappeared at about the same time and for the same reason: the acquisition of efficient high-caliber repeating rifles by Indian and non-Indian communities.

The record is impeded by the types of researchers who were in a position to study poison arrows at the time of contact. Most were untrained in anything resembling ethnobotany and had little desire to investigate warfare patterns where poison-arrow making would be found.

Attitudes about poison held by contact and postcontact Indians also cloud the record. For example, the Chiricahua Apache thought poisons were the special province of witches, a belief common to many Indian groups. An Apache ethnographer wrote,

Chiricahua Apache do not like to discuss the topic of witchcraft. Some informants who were willing to talk about anything else, even the most intimate matters, simply refused to give information on this subject. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, to demonstrate too much knowledge of witchcraft places a person under suspicion of being a witch himself, too great a familiarity with the ways of those who "kill in secret" is considered a result of unhealthy interest or dubious practices. Also, to speak freely about witches is to invite their attention and persecution, especially of the comments, as those of any decent Apache should be critical.

At the time of French contact, Huron poison making was associated with sorcerers, and "anyone catching them was authorized by the consent of the whole country to cleave their skulls, without fear of being called to account."

Often, Indian writers connected the use of poison with Satanic influences. A California Indian commented,

Being a poisonous plant, the poppy fields Eschscholtzia californica, [American Golden Poppy] were of no use to the good morals and medical practices of the Indian doctors in the days gone by. But the notorious witch-doctor, having more of the devil in him than of anything else, made general use of this plant to compound some of his poisonous medicines in his irregular and evil practice.

A native Ojibway speaker wrote,

According to other accounts, the dispersion of the Ojibway from the island of their refuge was sudden and entire. The Evil Spirit had found a strong foothold amongst them. It is said by my informants that the medicine men of this period had come to a knowledge of the most subtle poisons, and they revenged the least affront with certain death. It is said that if a young woman refused the addresses of one of these medicine men, she fell a victim of his poison and her body being disinterred was feasted on by the horrid murderer. The Ojibways, at this period, fell entirely under the power of their Satanic medicine men.

Beliefs about poisoning and an aura of evil and fear surrounding the manufacture of poisons impeded access to pertinent knowledge concerning the practice. Further, Indian experts were few and often unwilling to admit to their expertise, particular to non-Indians. But despite the difficulties, it is possible to present a relatively large body of information on the use of poisons by North American Indians. In fact, that such a body of knowledge is scattered through ethnobotanical materials and early-contact sources suggests that, if the above factors had not been in place, the data on the subject would be far richer.


“A unique contribution to the field of American Indian ethnology. . . . This information has never been compiled before, and I doubt that many ethnologists in the field have ever suspected the extent to which poison was used among North American Indians. This book significantly extends our understanding.”
Wayne Van Horne, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Kennesaw State University