The San peoples of Namibia fortified their weapons’ lethality by collecting beetle poison, preparing it, and adding it to the tip of their arrows.
This was the discovery in a comprehensive study of the group’s hunting tradition, where researchers combined anthropological and historical data and conducted fieldwork for a peek into the San’s use of beetle poison.
Based on the investigation of lead author Caroline Chaboo, a University of Kansas assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, there was use of poison for nine San groups in Botswana and Namibia, namely G||ana, G|ui, G||olo, Ju’|hoansi, Hai||on, Naro, Kua, Tsila and Xao-ǁ’aen.
Chaboo and her team suspected that the poisons were adopted quite early.
“Arrow-hunting appears in ancient rock-paintings of the San, but it is unclear when poisons might have been adopted,” said Chaboo, whose specialization in leaf beetles in entomology drove her to study how the San peoples collect and use beetle poison.
The San harvested beetle larvae through digging soil around the host and separating the cocoons for them to take home. The cocoons then crack up and the beetle larvae are extracted.
Some hunters take the insects’ fluids out onto arrow heads or create a concoction together with other juices of plants. The poison, remaining cocoons, and poisoned arrows are handled and stored very carefully and away from humans, Chaboo added.
The native peoples used arrows for hunting large game, including buffalo, antelope, cheetah, giraffe, lion, and zebra. The poison cause slow-acting paralysis, taking effect in the affected animal in the next few hours after being hit.
The slow hunters’ chase, according to the study, forms the basis for the group’s famed tracking culture.
It is unclear, however, as to what biological purpose the poison in the beetles and the plants serves. Chaboo speculated that the protein toxin could be protecting the insect from the difficult dry climate above the ground, or perhaps warding predators off.
The beetles’ hard cocoons and underground dwellings already serve as their main layers of defense.
The San’s hunting traditions as well as other indigenous practices promise new insights to scientists from different disciplines.
“For example, the San can teach us how to live better in a hotter world with diminishing drinking water,” Chaboo added.
The findings were published in the journal ZooKeys.