by Amy Schoeman
Thousands of years before other hunters moved in on their hunting grounds, the Bushmen (San) were expert toxicologists. Whether hunting or waging war, their light weaponry would have been hopelessly inadequate without the toxic potions they used to coat their arrowheads.
The poisonous potions – some of which are prepared to this day – vary considerably in terms of where they are brewed, and what the purpose is.
Ingredients range from snake venom, milk from one or another of the Euphorbia species and other plants, to the grubs of certain beetles.
One of the most virulent preparations and the only one used by the Bushmen of the central Kalahari nowadays is prepared from the grubs of the Diampheda and Polyclada beetles that feed on the leaves of Commiphora africana and certain marula trees. Sometimes the brews are “seasoned” with bizarre ingredients such as crushed scorpions and trapdoor spiders.
A source of poison used by Namibian Bushmen when preparing their virulent toxic mixtures is the Adenium boehmianum, an attractive and quaint-looking succulent shrub or small tree referred to by Namibians as the Star of the Kaokoveld. Closely related to Southern Africa’s impala lily, A. multiflorum, which grows in low-altitude bushveld areas in eastern Southern Africa, A. boehmianum is endemic to northern Namibia and southern Angola. It also grows sporadically in the central and north-western parts of the country in rocky areas such as the Khomas Hochland. The plant is also called Boesmangif (Afrikaans for Bushman’s poison) and ouzuwo (Otjiherero for “poison”) and is widely feared by the Himba as a poisonous plant.
A. boehmianum’s most striking feature is undoubtedly its crimson-throated pink to mauve flowers, set off by the dark green leaves. The plant grows as a shrub to a small tree, sometimes with three, four or five stems, usually up to a metre and a half in height, although there are specimens in the Marienfluss that are as high as 3.5 metres.
It is A. boehmianum’s large, fat cormlike root that yields the poison used by Bushmen for preparing their potions. The root’s milky latex is heated until it becomes viscous, and is then applied to the arrowhead. The potion becomes even more potent when mixed with milky latex from the Euphorbia subsala succulent. Depending on where the arrow strikes, a large animal collapses two to 12 hours after being hit. When the poison enters the bloodstream, it causes convulsions, paralysis and death. Smaller antelope usually die within 24 hours, while larger animals may take up to three days to succumb. Once the poison is in the blood, its action can neither be checked nor reversed, and there is no known antidote that can save an animal (or man) from its toxic effects. The meat, however, is safe to eat once the area around the wound has been cut away.
This article appeared in the April ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.