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Revised Schedule of Fees for Applications made to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA)

Request to export poison samples to Sweden




Case Type: 


Request to export poison samples to Sweden


This proposal is to export poison samples, previously removed under the terms of SAHRA permit ID2023 and AMAFA caseID 7370. The aim of this study is to find out what plant poisons were used to tip hunter-gatherer arrows among the diverse 19th and 20th century Bushman groups. Margaret Shaw’s (et al. 1963) seminal paper on San poisons focused only on those specimens in the Iziko Museums attributable to /Xam and Ju/wasi groups from the Cape and Namibia. Indeed, what information exists on San poisons is confined to the western half of southern Africa were eighteenth and nineteenth century travelogues record eye-witness observations of the poison ingredients. Little to no literature exists on those groups that lived in the eastern half of the sub-continent. Furthermore, the methods Shaw and colleagues (1963) used are now 50 years old. New and better techniques now exist that allow for more accurate analysis using far less material. The discovery of ricin at Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal (d’Errico et al. 2012) and the tentative presence of coniine derivatives at Sibudu (Matheson 2013 in Bradfield et al. 2015), also in KwaZulu-Natal, dating to the early LSA and MSA respectively, means that there is a need to examine the range of poison ingredients used by hunter-gatherers in the eastern half of the country. We expect that different groups, in different ecological settings, would have used different plant ingredients from the limited range recorded in the literature of the eighteenth to twentieth century Ju/wasi and /Xam. Different poison recipes present on the arrows may indicate that different arrows and poisons were used to hunt different animals. South Africa does not have a dedicated archaeometry laboratory with staff trained specifically in the biochemical analysis of archaeological residues. We originally attempted to establish a long-term collaborative research project with the Department of Chemistry at Pretoria, but this proved unsuccessful because their staff retention issues. Half the material was sent to the UK for analysis, but the presence of large complex protein structures in the samples renders them uncharacterisable by the lab in the UK, which specializes only in smaller plant-based compounds. We now request permission to send the remaining samples to a laboratory in Sweden that specializes in archaeological material and they will have the facilities to characterize the larger proteins that were noted in the samples. Marlize Lombard has a long-term collaborative research relationship with Prof. Anders Högberg from Linnaeus University, Sweden, who initiated collaboration with the Wallenberg Archaeometry lab in Stockholm. At this laboratory, scientific techniques are closely integrated with traditional methods and contemporary archaeological theory, resulting in an interdisciplinary approach to the solving of archaeological problems. The laboratory has a wide focus, including biological, chemical, physical and geological analytical methods applied to the archaeological records from any chronological period or geographical region. This is the first step in a larger project during which we will also sample and analyse poison residues from ethno-historically collected arrowheads accumulated between 1700 and 1900 in southern Africa, now curated at European institutions. These poison recipes are integral to understanding the complexity of ancient indigenous knowledge systems of southern African hunter-gatherers. Through generating a biochemical data-base for ethno-historical poisons, we hope to be well placed to obtain robust interpretations for residues from Stone Age artefacts.


Monday, June 19, 2017 - 12:06





CitationReferenceTypeDate Retrieved
Arrows from which poison was removed
Arrows from which poison was removed

Public Comments

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Justin Bradfield
3 months 2 weeks ago
Evolutionary Studies Institute
University of Johannesburg

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