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Poisons in the Palaeolithic?

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Poisons in the Palaeolithic?
  LETTER  Arrow poisons in the Palaeolithic? In a previous issue of PNAS, d ’ Errico et al. (1) reported in-teresting  󿬁 ndings from Border Cave in South Africa, includingthe presentation of a  “ poison applicator, ”  directly dated to ∼ 24,000 y ago. The fragmented wooden stick with perpendicularincisions appears, although smaller in diameter, not too in-distinct from some poison applicators recovered in the Kalahari.Residues found on the item were studied using gas chromatog-raphy, and the authors interpreted the results as evidence for thetoxin ricin. This was used to substantiate the claim that this “ applicator ”  is direct evidence of the use of poisons in hunting.Evidence of poison use in bow-and-arrow hunting would addto the concept of it as a highly cognitive multistage processinvolving the exploitation of natural substances for future gain.Discovering the use of poisons as part of prehistoric huntingtechnology is generally anticipated; Ellis ’  review of ethnographicdata (2) highlights a clear link between the use of lithic tippedarrows and the use of toxins, and I contend, as does Ambrose (3),that the use of poisons likely started at the inception of arrowtechnology, and intimate knowledge of poisons enabled theproduction and use of otherwise inef  󿬁 cient but lighthunting gear.Nevertheless, there are weaknesses in d ’ Errico et al. ’ s evi-dence (1) which one hopes can be rebutted. It should be notedthat if this is good evidence of ricin, it is a leap to imply that thisis direct evidence of the use of poisons speci 󿬁 cally in hunting.Ethnographic database review (4)  󿬁 nds castor plant products(source of ricin) are reported as medicines several times but arenot mentioned in the context of arrow poison. In addition,ricinoleic acid and ricinelaidic acid (the acids cited as evidenceof poison) are not poisonous but are the main components of castor oil, which, incidentally, has been cited as a substance usedin hide preparation methods local to Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal (5). Given the other uses of castor plant derivatives,and the authors ’  own contention that the item is likely not aprojectile implement, alternative hypotheses could be that this was a tool for food preparation, medicinal purposes, or thepreparation of hides. Little consideration appears to have beengiven to alternative castor plant extract use or to the othercompounds discovered in the sample (viewed as contaminants?).Discussion of how these might  󿬁 t into the interpretive framework  would help clarify the argument of d ’ Errico et al. (1), and it is notclear why these alternative possibilities are omitted from dis-cussion. A lack of spectra for the two residues analyzed from the wooden item makes it impossible to evaluate relative concen-trations of the compounds, and this further limits the ability toreview this evidence independently. Finally, it is worthy of notethat ricin itself is a protein (yet no protein analysis was con-ducted) and is not effective after heating; d ’ Errico et al. (1)claimed the substance had been heated, which appears to con-tradict their argument regarding its use.Given the questions surrounding these results, I am not surethat this can be considered the  “ oldest known secure evidence of the use of poison for hunting purposes ”  (1).  Adrian Anthony Evans 1  Archaeological, Geographical, and Environmental Sciences, Uni- versity of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP, United Kingdom 1. d ’ Errico F, et al. (2012) Early evidence of San material culture represented byorganic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa.  Proc Natl Acad Sci USA  109(33):13214 – 13219.2. Ellis CJ (1997) Factors in 󿬂 uencing the use of stone projectile tips: An ethnographicperspective.  Projectile Technology  , ed Knecht H (Plenum, New York), pp 37 – 74.3. Ambrose SH (2002) Small things remembered: Origins of early microlithic industries insub-Saharan Africa.  Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 12(1):9 – 29.4. eHRAF (2012) Human Relations Area Files: World cultures. Available at Accessed August 10, 2012.5. Krige EJ (1965)  The Social System of the Zulus  (Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg,South Africa).Author contributions: A.A.E. performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the paper.The author declares no con 󿬂 ict of interest. 1 To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: E3290  |  PNAS  |  November 27, 2012  |  vol. 109  |  no. 48
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