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Wednesday, 22 April 2009 16:38

Ancient chemical warfare

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I’m sometimes asked if the prehistoric Cherokees used any sort of poisons on their blowgun darts. These darts (slivers of black locust, hickory, or white oak) were from 10- to 20-inches long with thistledown tied at one end to form an air seal in the blowgun (a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length of 7 to 9 feet). The Cherokees were accurate with these weapons up to 40 or 60 feet, especially when shooting birds, but there is no evidence they used poisons of any sort on their darts.

They did, however, routinely employ poisons from several native plants when fishing. The drugging of fish was practiced during the dry months of late summer and early fall when water flow in mountain streams is often low, thereby creating a series of small pools with high concentrations of fish.

The two plants commonly used to stupefy fish were yellow buckeye (Aesculus octandra) and goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginica), which is also known as devil’s shoestring or catgut.

Buckeye nuts were ground up and thrown into the pools of water. The poison thereby released was aesculin. This toxin caused the fish to float to the surface where they were easily collected and thrown up on the bank in long-handled baskets made for that purpose. I do not know if the aesculin posed a risk to humans eating the fish.

Goat’s rue is still common in open or waste areas throughout the old Cherokee country. Easily recognized as a member of the Pea Family by its pinnate leaves that bear 17-29 leaflets, the silky-hairy plant (1-2 feet high) displays bi-colored, irregularly shaped flowers (yellow base, pink wings) throughout the summer.

The Cherokees and other Indian tribes in the southeastern United States collected goat’s rue and ground it up on posts resting on the bottom of a pool. Shortly after the ground plant materials fell into and saturated the water, paralyzed fish would float to the surface for collection. The toxic substance in goat’s rue is rotenone, which is the principal ingredient in various insecticides and modern fish poisons. By attacking the nervous system of the fish, rotenone did not poison the meat in any way.

The prehistoric Cherokees also speared fish, caught them with lines and bone hooks, shot them with bows and arrows, and grabbed them with their bare hands. But their most productive tactic involved the use of the rock weirs and fish traps. Located throughout the southern mountain region wherever the Cherokees located their large villages alongside major streams, these devices allowed for huge quantities of fish to be taken at one time.

Weirs were constructed where the water was swift. Two converging, wall-like alignments formed a V-shape. Facing downstream, the V-shaped structure funneled fish into a wicker or log trap. Harvesting the fish swept into the traps was a piece of cake.

(One of the most accessible of these ancient rock weirs is located alongside N.C. 28 about five miles north of Franklin across from the Cowee Gift Shop. This trap was maintained by white families who lived in the area into the 1930s, when the state outlawed the practice.)

However they procured them, the Cherokees prized fish like catfish that — with their skins still attached — could be easily smoked and dried so as to provide a supply of protein during the long winter months.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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