Poisons, plants and Palaeolithic hunters

“Dozens of common plants are toxic. Archaeologists have long suspected that our Palaeolithic ancestors used plant poisons to make their hunting weapons more lethal.  Now Dr Valentina Borgia has teamed up with a forensic chemist to develop a technique for detecting residues of deadly substances on archaeological objects.

We’re surrounded by poisonous plants: they thrive in our parks and gardens, hedgerows and woodlands. Foxgloves (Digitalis) look charming but their seeds can kill. The flowers of monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are a stunning blue but its roots can be deadly. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is both common and extremely toxic as Shakespeare reminds us in Macbeth with the incantations of the witches.  

Archaeologists have long believed that our ancestors used poisons extracted from such plants to make their weapons more lethal and kill their prey more swiftly. By dipping an arrow head into a poisonous paste, the hunter could ensure that an animal would receive a dose of toxic chemicals - alkaloids or cardenolides - that would either kill it immediately or slow it down.

Until very recently it has been impossible to prove that poisons extracted from plants were used by early societies. Now Dr Valentina Borgia, a specialist in Palaeolithic hunting weapons and Marie Curie Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, believes that she is on the brink of being able to prove that our ancestors used poisons as far back as 30,000 years ago” (read more).

(Source: University of Cambridge)

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) has an exceptionally long list of folk names. In addition to its popular identification with fairies and witches, it was also associated with the Virgin Mary, and its European names included Virgin’s Fingers and Our Lady’s Glove. (Reference: Flowers and Flower Lore, 2nd ed., 1884, by the Rev. Hilderic Friend.)

Art: The Drone by Arthur Hacker, 1899.


Wonderful for attracting and offering to faeries.

“This plant got the name "Folk’s Glove” for the Folk who live in the woods, where it likes to grow.  A visionary plant that is one of the baneful herbs, this perennial woodland plant is of Saturn and associated with the Underworld, although some consider it a Venus herb. It has long been a staple of a witch’s garden (but also graces cottage gardens) and was grown in medieval gardens as well.  The juice of this magick herb ritually collected and put in the center of a ritual circle in order to commune with Faeries (don’t let the juice touch your skin, as it is quite poisonous - I wear latex gloves when working with this plant).  You can also plant it by your door to invite the Faery in or carry a sprig to attract Faery protection. All kinds of bees, from honey bees to bumble bees to mason bees, love this flower; the spots show them where the nectar is. The ruby-throated hummingbird likes this plant too. Although now this flower family is famous for providing heart medicine, in pre-modern times the leaves were made into a poultice for wounds and sores (however, even a poultice of the leaves can be fatal). This plant is so poisonous that ingesting only .5 gram dried or 2 grams of fresh leaf is enough to kill a person, but it is very bitter, so ingestion is very unlikely; almost all poisonings from digitalis are due to medical administration of the alkaloid in pill form. Still, be careful when handling and do not breathe the smoke. For the least amount of alkaloids, a) grow it in the shade, b) harvest in the fall, after the plant has made seeds, and c) take the lowest leaves on the plant. Digitalis purpurea that has white or light pink flowers is less poisonous than if it has dark pink or purple flowers. This classic cottage garden plant is also known as Witches’ Gloves, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk’s Glove, and Fairy Thimbles.“ - Alchemy Works