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Curare Pot on Display in The Power of Poison

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From the Collections posts

A curare pot from the early 20th century is on display in the special exhibition The Power of Poison, now open at the Museum. Learn more. 

Curare pot (Poison exhibition)
Curare is made into a paste from the boiled and strained roots, bark, stems, and leaves of any of several tropical trees, vines, and plants. The paste is stored in various types of containers, including clay pots like this one, which you can see in The Power of Poison.  Catalog no. 40.1/893
© AMNH/D. Finnin

When British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) traveled through northwest Amazonia in the mid-19th century, he observed Tukanoan Indian hunters of the Rio Negro aiming blowguns with poisoned arrows at the treetops. The effects made an impression: “The wounded birds sometimes turn giddy and drop in a few seconds, or fly away to a neighboring tree and in a minute fall heavily to the ground,” he wrote.

Wallace had observed the effects of curare, the sap of a jungle vine that, when injected, acts as a powerful muscle relaxant. Its active ingredients include curarine and tubocurarine, alkaloids that are present in several Amazonian plants, including Curarea tecunarum and Chondrodendron tomentosum vines. A neurotoxin, curare blocks nerve impulses from reaching muscles when it enters the bloodstream, immobilizing the victim—a bird, monkey, or other small animal.

But it’s harmless when ingested, so the meat of curare-stricken prey is safe to eat.

By incapacitating wild game this way, human hunters are doing what many animal predators do to secure their meals. Various species of scorpions, spiders, and venomous snakes inject calibrated cocktails of venom into their prey to paralyze or kill it. But humans have to create their weapons, and blowguns with curare-tipped arrows are ideal for rain forest hunting. Crafted from easily available materials, they bring down animals quietly, without alarming other prey and with little damage to fur or feathers.

The Tukanoan Indians prepare curare by scraping sap from the bark of a tropical vine, then pounding and boiling it down to a thick paste. Often, ingredients such as crushed snake fangs or stinging ants, which are thought to bestow magical powers, are added to fortify the curare. Because it loses potency when exposed to the air, curare is kept covered in gourds or clay pots like the one above, currently featured in the special exhibition The Power of Poison.

Visitors in Poison in Nature
© AMNH/D. Finnin

The curare pot comes from the Museum's own collection. It was collected in the early 20th century by the archaeologist Hermann Walde von Waldegg and donated to the Museum by geologist and collector Dr. Harvey Bassler in 1961. Three other curare containers are on exhibit in the Hall of South American Peoples, along with blowguns and related artifacts.

Learn more about The Power of Poison, open now. 

A version of this story appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.