An article by
Carroll Quigley in the
Volume 58, Number 3, June 1956, pp. 508-525:
Aboriginal Fish Poisons and the
Recent work on the world-wide distribution of aboriginal fish
poisons has indicated that the New World forms a single diffusion area,
spreading outward from a focus in northern South America (Heizer 1953: 255) ;
that there has been no diffusion from the Old World to the New (p. 257); and
that the Old World may be either a single diffusion area or may fall into the
three separate diffusion areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia with Oceania and
Australia (pp. 249, 256). In this paper I hope to show that the Old World may be
regarded as a single diffusion area, and that the independence between the New
World and the Old in this matter is not conclusive.
an analysis we must make an essential distinction between diffusion of the
knowledge that plant juices can stupefy fish, and diffusion of particular plants
or particular methods of extracting these juices. There can be no doubt that the
former would diffuse more easily and more rapidly than the latter. Moreover,
recognition that plant juices can stupefy fish is not a discovery which would
appear to be made easily but must have resulted from some accidental occurrence
of the phenomenon, followed by meditation on it, and recognition of the
connection. This seems so much more difficult than diffusion of the knowledge
itself that it is only fair to assume that the presence of the trait in two
areas which are known, from other evidence, to have had cultural connections
should be attributed to diffusion rather than independent discovery, even if the
two areas use different plants as piscicides. Finally, if such areas use the
same plants, it would seem conclusive that occurrence of the trait results from
diffusion and not from independent discovery.
The use of these principles in interpreting the
factual material provided by Heizer, with the addition of a small amount of
material which he does not mention, seems to support the impression that the
Old World forms a single diffusion area. Heizer himself did not reach this
conclusion, probably because of the complexity of the botanical evidence and
also because of his reluctance to use diffusion over sea routes. For
example, he doubts diffusion of the trait from the Levant to Greece because
of its rarity in Anatolia (the land-link between the two areas), but does
not mention the fact that Asia and Europe used the same plants (Anamirta
cocculus and Verbascum sinuatum) for fish poisons. As we shall show later,
these plants could have been carried by ship from Syria to Greece without
stopping in Anatolia at all. Like most Americanists, Heizer is very
skeptical of the possibility of prehistoric navigation across water
distances beyond the range of vision. Old World pre-historians do not share
this reluctance because they have extensive evidence for navigation even
earlier than 2000 B.C. Islands of the Old World were clearly settled at very
remote periods across deep water, and cultural links can be found across
such waters millennia ago. There are numerous examples of this in the Indian
Ocean: a less well-known one is the diffusion of agriculture from Spain to
Britain by sea between 2500 and 2000 B.C. and the later construction of an
earth-mound (passage-grave) on St. Kilda, fifty miles west of the Outer
Hebrides (Hawkes 1947: 4247). The original inhabitants of the Mediterranean
islands, especially Crete, must have settled on them at a fairly remote
period, at least before 4000 B.C. (Pendlebury 1939: 3541; Hawkes 1940: 77;
Childe 1949: 18, 22, 41). And the earliest inhabitants of Japan must have
arrived by boat in the early Holocene, perhaps shortly after 5000 B.C. (Groot
1951: 4, 11).
It is worthy of note that Heizer makes the
New World, with whose prehistoric materials he is most familiar, into a
single diffusion area, and does not hesitate to use rather lengthy
water-crossings in doing so (for example, from South America to southeastern
United States via the Antilles; p. 254). On the other hand, he displays no
such confidence in his discussion of the Old World evidence. To be sure, he
is willing to include Australia and Oceania in a single Asian diffusion
area, but is much less willing to include Africa or Europe in the same area.
In view of the widely accepted theory that Oceanian
cultural origins are largely Asiatic, there is little problem in linking
that area to Asia (Heizer 1953: 246). On turning to Australia, Heizer argues
convincingly against the conclusion of Hamlyn-Harris and Smith that the
practice of fish poisoning in Australia was of independent origin, pointing
out (ibid. pp. 243-244), “TWO facts must be noted which have a bearing upon
this conclusion. The first is the continuous Australian distribution of fish
drugging; the second is the decided emphasis on fish stupefying in the
region adjoining Melanesia, the same area in which, in other aspects of
culture, the most pronounced external cultural influence has been received,
viz., Queensland . . . The concept of fish drugging may have entered
Australia ultimately from Southeast Asia via Malaysia and western Melanesia.
It was first received by the Queensland natives on Cape York Peninsula,
where the center of development is noted.” This argument for diffusion would
have been strengthened if Heizer had pointed out that several of the plants
used in Queensland (Barringtortia asiatica, Tephrosia purpurea, and Derris
uliginosa) were the same plants used for this purpose in the East Indies. In
fact, many plants are so widely used as piscicides in the Old World that the
argument for diffusion of this trait, rather than for several independent
discoveries, is greatly strengthened by examination of the botanical
evidence. Heizer’s detailed areal lists of piscicides offer a convenient way
of doing this. On these lists, however, the case for diffusion has
occasionally been weakened by the use of different names for the same plant
in different areas. For example, Derris uliginosa and Derris trifoliala are
the same plant (Kelsey 1942: 159) ; so too are Harringtonia asiatica and
Rarringtonia speciosa (Kelsey 1942: 42), while Anamirta cocculus and Anamirta
paniculata are the same plant, since this is a monospecific genus (Willis
1931: 35). Heizer also lists this plant under a third name, Cocculus indicus,
from Java (1953: 261). Also, certain omissions from these lists (such as
Mundulea suberosa from Central Africa, Madagascar, India, and Ceylon (Howes
1930: 33) may or may not be significant.2
If we examine Heizer’s lists with these corrections in
mind, it is clear that a few species of plants were used as fish poisons
over wide areas in the Old World. Barringtonia asiatica was used from
Madagascar to Tahiti, including en route the Nicobar Islands, Celebes,
Philippines, the Marianas, New Britain, Solomon Islands, Queensland, Fiji,
Samoa, and most of Polynesia (including
Tahiti and the Marquesas). Since
Barringtonia is a littoral plant disseminated by water-borne seed, this wide
distribution of the species has no significance as evidence of diffusion by
human agency. Another plant, Derris uliginosa, is used as a fish poison from
the Zambezi River in Africa, through India and Southeast Asia to the
Philippines, Java, Australia, Fiji, and the Marquesas. This distribution is
much more indicative of a possible human role in its dissemination because
Derris, when used as a fish poison, is commonly a cultivated plant and may
have been spread over some of its broad range by human action. A third fish
poison, Mundulea suberosa, “probably as a result of age-long cultivation”
(Howes 1930: 133) is used throughout tropical Africa as well as in
Madagascar, India, and Ceylon. Or again, Anamirta cocculus is reported from
Brittany to the Philippines, including Palestine, Arabia, Persia, India,
Malaya, and Java. Another widely distributed plant used in the same way is
Derris elliptica, reported from India, Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo,
Philippines, the Caroline Islands, and New Guinea.3
As we shall see later when we examine the thorny problems of the genera
Lonchocarpus and Tephrosia, other species used as fish poisons were
distributed even more widely. In general, the wide distribution of a few
plants used in the same way over an area which is known to have been in
culture contact from a remote period of prehistory seems to strengthen the
view that the whole Old World forms a single diffusion area.
This idea of the Old World as a single diffusion area
is reinforced when we review the evidence for diffusion across the
hypothetical boundaries which roused Heizer’s doubts; these were the
boundaries between Asia and Africa, and between Asia and Europe. In regard
to the former, Heizer says (1953: 247) “There is no concrete evidence of
origins in Africa, but . , . the distribution ([Heizer’s] map 2) suggests
the possibility of an independent African origin of fish drugging . . .
African fish poisoning may be a tropical West African invention, later
diffused generally throughout the continent. Or it may have been anciently
related to the Euro-Asian occurrences, the former intermediate links not now
being in evidence.” The last sentence refers to the lack of the trait in
Egypt and the Sahara, and shows Heizer’s assumption that any African
connection with Asia must have been by the land-bridge at Suez. Other
evidence, with some of which Heizer is familiar, shows clearly that
south-eastern and eastern Africa have been in cultural contact with Asia by
sea throughout history and far back into the prehistoric period. As Heizer
says (1953: 247), “Madagascar has experienced profound cultural influences
from the Malaysian area.” That fish poisoning may have been among these
cultural influences is certainly indicated by the fact that southeast Africa
shared several poisoning plants with southern Asia (Derris uliginosa,
Mundulea suberosa, Barringtonia asiatica, Tephrosia purpurea, and Tephrosia
vogelii) . The direction of the prevailing winds and ocean currents, coming
from the southern and southeastern coasts of Asia down to Madagascar, made
it inevitable that early seafarers from these coasts would eventually reach
the island (Hornell 1934). Most recent writers on the subject, such as
Grandidier, Ferrand (1919, 1934), and Linton, have been struck by the
evidence of Malayan influence in Madagascar, while Danielli has traced such
influences to even more distant areas in East Asia and Europe. It is an
interesting fact that the Negritos, the most widespread and possibly the
most ancient peoples of this whole circum-Indian Ocean area, are very
familiar with plant poisons and must have reached some of their present
habitats by sea. This is true, for example, of the Andaman Islanders
(Radcliffe-Brown 1948: 5,417), and was probably true of the original settlers
of Madagascar if these were Negritos, as Ferrand believed (1936: 74). In any
case, the cultural links between Malaysia and Madagascar are beyond
question. In the same way, there have been links by sea between southeastern
Africa and southwestern Asia. In historic times these links have been so
strong that for long periods Zanzibar and parts of Arabia (Oman) have been
under the same political control (Coupland 1938; Salil ibn Razik 1871).
Several recent writers have argued from the distribution of birds, flora,
and human evidence that the tropical jungles of Central Africa and those of
South Asia must have been linked in the prehistoric period by tropical
forest conditions in southern Arabia, especially in Oman (Chapin 1932;
Nielsen 1927; Coon 1943). The archeological and cultural evidence supports
the existence of such a link even in the most remote period (Breuil 1954).
The fact that the natives of the Zambezi River and those of much of southern
Asia use the same plants for fish poisoning surely does nothing to weaken
this link. Nor is this theory of an Asiatic origin weakened, as Heizer
believed, by a West African “focus” of fish poisoning. This West African
focus is an “ecological focus” rather than an “origin focus.” Like
northeastern South America and southeastern Asia, West Africa had those
tropical rainforest conditions which produced numerous piscicide plants and
which permitted the trait to flourish because of the existence of constant
streams, warm water, rapid reproduction of fish, and so forth. The fact that
there are three tropical rainforest areas and three foci of fish poisoning
associated with them indicates that the trait flourishes under tropical
rainforest conditions, not that it originated in any one of the areas rather
than another. Indeed, the fact that cultural diffusion in Africa seems
generally to have been southward and westward rather than eastward or
northward (and thus into West Africa rather than out of it), combined with
the evidence that southeast Africa is part of the Asiatic cultural (and fish
poisoning) diffusion area, makes it very unlikely that West Africa is an
“origin focus” rather than an ‘(ecological focus.”
absence of the fish poisoning trait from Egypt and the Sudan is no
insuperable obstacle to the inclusion of Africa in the Euro-Asian diffusion
area. As Heizer recognized (p. 247), the present desiccation of North Africa
may well have destroyed evidence that the trait existed in an earlier period
when that area was more plentifully watered. This is particularly true when
we find fish poisoning reported from the Canary Islands (Cook 1900: 466) in a
cultural context which is very largely North African. Moreover, Egypt, like
Anatolia, may be an example of another characteristic of piscicides. It
seems evident that fish poisoning tends to disappear in areas of higher
civilizations and strong governments. This tendency is pointed out by Howes
in general terms (1930: 129), by Killip and Smith in regard to South America
(1931: 407) and by Heizer (1953: 241-249) in regard to Europe. If this is a
valid rule it could surely be expected to apply to Egypt, where civilization
and strong government go back to 3000 B.C. The same explanation could be
used for the rarity of the trait in Anatolia, where civilization and strong
government date to before 1500 B.C. (Troy and the Hittite Empire). In this
connection, Plato’s prohibition on fish poisoning in the fourth century B.C.
is certainly significant (Heizer 1953: 241, n. 36 quoting from Butler
1930: 133). If we add to these arguments the fact that seaborne trade was
moving westward from the Levant as early as 3000 B.C. and had reached Spain
by 2700 B.C., bringing such Asiatic cultural influences as the use of
metals, knowledge of agriculture, a cult of the dead, familiarity with the
solar calendar, and possibly some domestic animals of tropical forest origin
such as fowl, swine, or dogs (Hawkes 1940: 83, 128-129, 199; Childe
1948: 259-278) we can see that the modern absence of widespread fish
poisoning in Anatolia is no obstacle to the inclusion of Europe in the
Asiatic diffusion area of the trait. The fact that the most commonly used
fish poison plant in Mediterranean Europe was the same plant (Verbascum
sinuatum) which was used in Palestine and Syria also strengthens the
arguments in support of a single Euro-Asian diffusion area. The theory that
fish-poisoning may have been diffused from Asia to Europe by sea is
supported by a piece of evidence whose significance might be lost on anyone
who lacked a considerable knowledge of European prehistory. The seaborne
megalithic influences which brought a knowledge of metals and agri-
culture and a cult of the dead associated with megalithic monuments to Spain
about 2700 B.C. and to Britain about 2300 B.C. established their main
Western European focus in Brittany (Daniel 1941). This focus is still marked
by numerous megalithic monuments on the southern coast of the peninsula, and
may also be marked by the fact that as late as 1884 (Anon. 1884) the Bretons
used as fish poison a plant (Anamirta cocculus) of South Asiatic origin
(Willis 1931:35; Howes 1930: 138) whose chief usage for this purpose was in
the area from Suez to Bengal.
From these arguments, it would seem very likely that
the entire Old World area possessing this trait formed a single diffusion
area, with its origin somewhere in southern or southeastern Asia, whence the
trait diffused eastward to Indonesia, Australia, and Oceania, southwestward
to Africa, and westward to Europe, but did not go northward to northeastern
Europe or northern Asia.
The fact that this trait is generally unrecorded in
northern Asia and is not found on either side of Bering Strait as far south
as Japan in Asia or as the Columbia River in America, does not preclude the
possibility of diffusion from the Old World to the New. The evidence seems
clearly to show that the fish poisoning trait did not come to the New World
by way of Bering Strait. On the other hand, the possibility has been opened
in recent years that it may have crossed the Atlantic from Africa. Since
this is no place to examine the total evidence for such a possibility, I
shall limit my remarks to two kinds. Ocean currents and winds are such that
a voyage from West Africa to South America would have been the easiest
transoceanic voyage in prehistoric times, with a distance about one-quarter
or one-fifth the trans-Pacific distance and a sailing time only a fraction
as long as any other transoceanic route. Moreover, the winds and currents
(which are such as to make a forty-five day voyage a distinct possibility
even in a primitive craft with rudimentary sails) lead directly from the
fish-poisoning “focus” of West Africa to the similar “focus” of northwestern
South America. Finally, there is the growing evidence that such a connection
may have occurred. Leaving aside the controversial problem of the paleo-Indian
or of African physical types in jungle South America, we should turn our
attention to the cultural evidence. It seems evident that the fish-poisoning
technique is of tropical forest origin and appeared in a cultural context
which included emphasis on poisons and fibers, the use of fish-nets,
gourd-floats, and stone-sinkers, with an elaborate knowledge of botanical
poisons, stimulants, and narcotics, probably the poisoned arrow and possibly
the blow-gun, the practice of a rudimentary agriculture which concentrated
on fibrous plants and root crops propagated by vegetative cuttings, and
possession of the dog, fowl, and swine as domestic animals. With the
exception of swine, all of these elements are found in a similar context in
West Africa and jungle South America. The recent evidence (as in Carter 1953
or Sauer 1952) that both sides of the South Atlantic had the same species of
gourd, cotton, and black-fleshed, tailless jungle-fowl, and the evidence (as
in Bird 1948) that the earliest American agriculture (perhaps as old as 2500
B.C.) grew gourds and cotton in a fishing economy, make it necessary to
consider the possibility of a cultural diffusion, including piscicides,
across the South Atlantic from Africa to South America. This is not the
place to attempt such a task, and I shall restrict my consideration to
piscicide plants. It is obvious that under such a restriction nothing
conclusive can be demonstrated, but it can be shown that absence of this
trait from the Bering Strait area does not provide conclusive proof for its
independent invention in the New World.
The most widely used piscicides are members of the
botanical family Leguminosae. This numerous class is sometimes (as by
Chevalier 1937b: 565) divided into the two tribes Dalbergiae and Galegeae.
The Dalbergiae include the genera Dalbergia, Derris, Lonchocarpus, Piscidia,
and Cadia, while the Galegeae include Millettia, Tephrosia, and Mulzdulea.
Auguste Chevalier, who spent
years studying these plants, says (ibid.) “Ces
deux tribus (ainsi que certains genres qu’elles renferment) sont du reste
mal delimitees: ainsi on passe insensibilement des Lonchocarpus aux
Millettia.” Generic differences are even more weakly defined. A recent
writer, the botanist Schery, says (1952: 295) “In the Far East the
counterpart of Lonchocarpus is Derris (tuba) also of the Leguminosae. Even
the foremost taxonomists have been hard put to find any significant
differences between these two genera, other than their geographical
distribution, one being found in the New World and the other in the Old.”
Roark (1938) quotes J. Lindley (1876) as saying that Lonchocarpus could be
distinguished from Piscidia and other allied genera only by the shape of its
fruit pods since the flowers were the same, while Grandidier (1902 : XXX, p.
288) saiddhat in Madagascar Lonchocarpus could not be distinguished from
Milletia, except when it had mature fruit. Similarly, Tephrosia is
distinguished from Mundulea only by the shape of the calyx, and the latter
is distinguished from Milletia by similar small differences. As a
consequence, there is widespread disagreement between botanists as to the
genus of many plants, and even greater disagreement when efforts are made to
put these plants into species. Worsley, after studying Mundulea suberosa, a
fish poison used from Africa to Oceania, accused Chevalier of confusing
Mundulea suberosa with Tephrosia vogelii (Worsley 1936: 312) and was
contradicted on grounds of personal knowledge (Chevalier 1937a: 24, n. 1).
The Mundulea sericea of Willdenow is the same plant as the Tephrosia sericea
and the Tephrosia suberosa of De Candolle (according to Chevalier 1937a:
21), while the Madagascan fish poisoning plant which Baker called Tephrosia
monantha is called Mundulea endemica by Edouard Heckel. Similar examples
could be quoted by the score. When we turn from generic distinctions to
species differences the confusion becomes even greater. We shall examine
from this basis the two groups Lonchocarpus-Derris and Tephrosia because of
their great significance in the whole problem of fish-poisoning, the origins
of agriculture, and early human
In the Old World a number of widely used piscicides
fall into the genus Derris, and are used over an area extending from West
Africa eastward to the Marquesas. In the New World a somewhat similar
position is held by a number of plants which are usually classified in the
genus Lonchocarpus. As we have said, botanists have been unable to establish
any distinctive differences between these two genera, and it seems evident
that they may eventually be placed in a single genus. Efforts to base some
generic distinction on the size or shape of the seed pods have been without
much success because the pods vary so greatly even on the same plant, but
above all because many Lonchocarpi produce neither blossoms nor seeds (Roark
1938: 13-16; Krukoff and Smith 1937: 575; Martyn and Follett-Smith 1936: 157;
Chevalier 1937b: 3578582; Hermann 1948: 72-75). This problem did not become
acute until about 1930, when it was discovered that some varieties produce
rotenone which could be used as an insecticide. Until then, varieties found
in South America were generally put into Lonchocarpus while those found in
Asia were put into Derris, but as botanical knowledge of Africa increased, a
problem arose. Some varieties were put into one genus while other similar
ones were put into the other genus. About twenty years ago this confusion
spread into South America. A plant from Surinam, which Miquel in 1844 had
called Lonchocarpus pterocarpus, was identified by Killip as the Derris
pterocarpus of De Candolle. The Lonchocarpus negrensis of George Bentham
became Killip’s Derris amazonica. These changes were not caused by any
twentieth century revulsion against the ideas of the nineteenth century, but
by the complexity of the botanical problem. In fact, even in the nineteenth
century, Bentham had put some South American varieties into the genus Derris
(i.e. Derris guyanensis). Where botanists cannot establish order it is wise
for non-botanists to stay out, but it seems to be agreed that the confusion
and instability is on the New World side of the Atlantic. Clearly,
Lonchocarpus presents a botanical puzzle. There is a very large number of
species (120, according to Willis 1931: 392), but the individual plants are
so variable and species distinctions fluctuate so widely that the
establishment of botanical order is no small problem. There is considerable
doubt whether the most commonly used piscicide Lonchocarpi are ever found
wild (except as feral individuals), and there are disputes as to whether
they normally bear blossoms or seeds. It is quite certain that many of the
plants of this genus found in the American tropics result from human
activity, planted by the vegetative method, As Heizer realizes (1953: 255), a
situation such as this indicates a long period of human cultivation of these
plants in the New World, with its resulting local variation and inconstancy
of characters. Unfortunately, most of the efforts made toward botanical
classification of Lonchocarpus have been based on obvious external
characters rather than on any genetical approach (which may be impossible;
Senn 1938 has nothing on either Derris or Lonchocarpus).
There have been four main efforts to classify
Lonchocarpus: by George Bentham (1860; 1862); by Henri Pittier (1917); by B.
A. Krukoff and A. C. Smith (1937); and by Frederick J. Hermann (1947-1948).
All except Bentham’s were restricted geographically, either to the New World
or to Middle America. Even on that basis it cannot be said that these
efforts have been successful. Each writer has merely rearranged the
confusion, collapsing species established by earlier writers and creating
new ones of his own. Not only do individual plants of different species
closely resemble each other in obvious characters such as habits or leaves,
but these characters vary with conditions. Leaves, for example, differ
between old plants and young ones, between upper and lower branches; they
differ when growing in shadow or in sun, in humid spots or in drier ones,
Thus the leaves on the same plant may be different, while the leaves on a
neighboring plant of a different species may be the same (as is true,
according to Krukoff and Smith 1937, p. 522, of the leaves of Lonchocarpus
utilis A. C. Smith and the middle leaves of L. nicou Killip and Smith grown
in the shade). The same fish-poisoning plant, depending on conditions, may
be a bush, a climbing vine, or a small tree, and may or may not be an
effective piscicide. In a similar way (according to Panshin 1937) the wood
anatomy of the same plant varies as greatly as the differences between
species. As in most fish-poisoning plants, especially cultivated ones, the
toxic content varies so greatly that a plant which is effective in one
locality or at a certain season of the year may be innocuous in a different
locality or season. There is considerable evidence that many of these
variable characters, including toxicity, are heritable. In a series of
studies recorded by Jones, it was found that the rotenone content of Derris
elliptica varied from 0 percent to 6.9 percent, while that of Lonchocarpus
nicou varied from 4 percent to 11.2 percent (Jones 1933).
The older, accepted distinction between species and
varieties was that species possessed stable and constant characters which
did not intergrade, while varieties had variable, inconstant, characters
which intergraded, usually on an areal basis (Biological Society of
Washington 1919; Clausen et al. 1939; Ripley 1945). These rules do not hold
for the leguminous piscicides; in fact, they do not hold for weeds,
cultivated varieties, or feral plants (Anderson 1952: 16-48). Man is so
disruptive to natural ecology that all kinds of unnatural botanical
varieties can survive where he has passed. He moves about so rapidly and
carries with him so many different plants, either unconsciously as weeds or
consciously as cultigens, that he completely disrupts geographic intergradation, with the result that taxonomists are constantly tempted to
classify as new species (and thus run up their own score of such
innovations) what are basically only varieties, This temptation is increased
when an ocean intervenes between two varieties. Plants which would hardly
merit varietal differentiation if found on the opposite banks of a river
will readily earn special (or even generic) differentiation if they are on
opposite shores of an ocean, and will do so on nonbotanical grounds.
Botanists generally assume that there was no transoceanic interchange of
plants before 1492, and create new species on that assumption alone.
Finally, the temptation to create new species reaches its peak when we are
concerned with cultivated plants propagated by vegetative methods,
especially when these methods have practically eliminated the possibility of
obtaining blossoms or fruits. All of these problems apply to the leguminous
piscicides and especially to Lonchocarpus. After years of study and several
expeditions into the jungle, examining thousands of plants at all seasons of
the year and utilizing the resources of Kew Gardens, the New York Botanical
Garden, the U. S. National Herbarium, and the University of Utrecht
Herbarium, Krukoff and Smith were able to identify 10 kinds of Lonchocarpus
or Derris in South America, but had fruits for only five and flowers for
only seven. They decided that they had three new species, six old species, a
Lonchocarpus for which they could not determine the species, and a plant for
which they could not determine the genus. In the same year in which Krukoff
and Smith published the results of their study, Chevalier protested against
the tendency to make new species out of varietal differences, pointing out
on the basis of his studies of the collections in Paris (1937b: 3578-582) that
he felt that Lonchocarpus nicou DC., L. floribundus Benth., L. spruceanis
Benth., L. rubiginosus Benth., and L. rufescens Benth., should form a single
species. In his study published in 1947-1948, Frederick J. Hermann moved
eight Lonchocarpi to other genera (6 to Willardia, 1 to Vatairea, and 1 to a
new monospecific genus Terua “intermediary between Galegae and Dalbergiae
with striking mimicry of Lonchocarpi and very close to Willardia”), reduced
13 species of Lonchocarpi to varietal status, but created five new species
in the genus (one taken from Piscidia).
Similar confusion exists with respect to the other
leguminous piscicides, especially Tephrosia. No general study of this genus
has been made since DeCandolle’s in 1825, but a number of regional studies
have been made since 1920. These have been so unsatisfactory that Carroll E.
Wood, Jr. wrote in 1949, “The high percentage of misidentified specimens in
herbaria and the con-
fusion in anthropological, ethnological, and
chemical literature in connection with the use of various species of
Tephrosia as fish-poisons and insecticides are further indications of the
desirability of re-examination of the genus” (Wood 1949: 193). In his
efforts to bring order into the American Tephrosia, Wood divided them into
two groups, one with glabrous styles and the other with bearded styles, and
decided that it was impossible to unscramble the former group on the basis
of existing information. His study of the barbistyled species reduced the
number of such species in America from 90 to 45 (of which 7 were new), and
reduced Rydberg’s total of 72 species of all Tephrosia in North America and
the West Indies to no more than 50. In a similar fashion, Forbes in 1948
listed 67 species in South Africa compared to Baker’s 146 species from a
larger geographic area in 1926 (‘(many of which were based on variable
pubescence-characters:” Wood 1949).
The confusion in the genus Tephrosia is of great
significance to our problem because Tephrosia is the most widely used genus
of fish poisoning plants, and one of its species, Tephrosia purpurea, is
pantropical. Of this species Chevalier says (1937a: 17), “C’est une
ubiquiste des regions tropicales. On la trouve non seulement sur les trois
continents (Asie, Afrique, Amerique) mais aussi en
Madagascar, aux Philippines, et dans presque toutes les iles du Pacifique.
Il n’est pas douteux qu’elle a Ct6 disseminee par l’homme primitif au cours
de ses nombreuses migrations mais il est difficile de dire quelle est sa
The wide range (and even world-wide range) of some
species of Tephrosia, their weed-like qualities (such as prevalence around
old human habitats, travelling with men as hitch-hikers, etc.) their great
variability, their occurrence as cultivated plants on very primitive levels
and especially as cultigens whose wild ancestors are rare or lacking, and
their wide use for such a primitive activity as fish poisoning, all serve to
make Tephrosia an important plant in the study of early agriculture,
prehistoric migrations, and cultural diffusion.
The genus Tephrosia is generally credited with about
150 species; of these (according to Roark 1937), twenty-two were used as
fish-poisons. But when we examine Roark’s list of these twenty-two species,
it becomes clear that many are either the same species with different names
or at best are varieties of a single species. For example, Tephrosia
brevipes Benth. is the same plant as Tephrosia sessiliflora (Poir.). Hassl.
(Killip and Smith 1935) ; so also, Tephrosia densiflora Hook. f. of Nigeria
and Tephrosia periculosa Baker of East Africa and Madagascar are merely
local varieties or the same plant as the widely spread Tephrosia vogelii
Hook. f. (Chevalier 1937a : 19-20). Wilbraux believes that Tephrosia cinerea
(L.) Pers. is the same species as Tephrosia toxicaria
(Sw.) Pers., which
is merely the customary American designation for Tephrosia sinapou Buchoz
(Wilbraux 1935: 17), but this is rejected by Wood and others and may arise
from the extraordinary confusion between these two which was pointed out by
Chevalier (1937a: 15). On the other hand, Wood’s questioning of the
pantropical status of Tephrosia purpurea (L.) Pers., a species excluded
from his own study, and his listing of it as an exotic in America do not
stand on firm ground. It has been recorded, apparently as an aboriginal
plant and sometimes under the name Tephrosia piscotoria Pers., from the Old
World, the New World, and the Pacific Islands (Chevalier 1937a: 17-18;
Wilbraux 1935: 9; Roark 1937: 35; Stokes 1921: 226, 229 quoting Asa Gray
1854:XV, 407; Chopra 1941: 895, not used as piscicide; Howes 1930: 130-144;
Virot 1950: 88, not used as piscicide; Kew Royal Botanic Gardens 1911:
195-196; Staner and Boutique 1937: 82, not used as fish poison; Hamlyn-Harris
and Smith 1916: 11; Moloney 1887:311, not as a piscicide). Because of its
world-wide distribution, Wood does not recognize Tephrosia purpurea Pers.
except as an introduced
plant, although a competent botanist like Small
reports it as a wild plant in Florida used by the Seminole Indians as a
specific for nose bleed (Small 1933: 708). In this connection it may be
worth pointing out that Tephrosia leptostachya DC, which Wood seems to
accept as an American plant and which Chevalier considers to be merely a
variety of Tephrosia purpurea Pers. found in West Africa, is reported as an
aboriginal fish poison from Senegambia in Africa and from Brazil (Chevalier
1937a: 17; Corbett 1940: 26). Another possible link between the Old World
and the New may exist between the African fish poison Tephrosia vogelii
Hook. f. and the American piscicide Tephrosia toxicaria (Sw.) Pers. Both are
largely cultivated plants, the American one almost completely so (Wood 1949:
249-255) and the African one very largely so (Wilbraux 1935: 3-7; Chevalier
1937a: 19). They are so closely related that earlier writers believed each
had been transplanted across the ocean. F. R. de Tussac in 1808 recorded T.
toxicaria as a piscicide in the Antilles, and guessed that it had been
brought to America by Negro slaves. Eventually it became clear, largely from
its lack of ability to perpetuate itself after the Carib extermination, that
the plant was pre-Columbian in the West Indies (Chevalier 1937a: 11-14 sums
up the argument and concludes that it was a close relative of T. vogelii but
“malgre ses affinites , . . est bien americain”). But in his early
encounters with Tephrosia vogelii Chevalier had considered it an importation
from America, an offspring of the slave trade. He wrote, “apres avoir pense
qu’il etait originaire d’Amerique et importe en Afrique lors de la traite
des esclaves, le consideronsnous aujourd’hui comme africain.” This by no
means closes the issue, however. Both plants, as cultigens, are extremely
variable. Each produces an emarginate variety which is frequently considered
a separate species: T. emarginata H.B.K. in America and T. densiflora Hook.
f. in Africa, both apparently known only as cultivated plants (Killip and
Smith 1931:407; Wood 1949: 247-255; Chevalier 1937a: 11-14). Moreover,
varieties intermediate between T. toxicaria and T. vogelii have been found,
and sometimes given species status. An example is T. talpa S. Watson, which
was found by Edward Palmer in 1886 on the same expedition on which he
reported finding Tephrosia toxicaria a$ a wild plant. T. talpa has since
been reported as a fish poison used by the Tarahumare in the same area
(Bennett and Zingg 1935: 170). The distribution of Tephrosia toxicaria, as
recorded by Wood (1949:228, 249-255), shows that it must have been spread by
human activity and been carried by sea. It is found in South America from
Colombia to Ecuador and Peru; in Venezuela, Guiana, Brazil, and Bolivia
along the Amazon drainage area, in the West Indies (notably Jamaica and
Hispaniola), but in Central America only in a range from Veracruz and San
Luis Potosi, Mexico, south to Guatemala and Salvador, being unrecorded from
there to Colombia. Wood concludes, “Throughout much of the range in South
America the plant seems to be represented primarily in cultivation, and it
is likely that it would not persist in many areas without continued care. .
. , If the plant has been spread primarily by man in these regions in
connection with its use as a fish-poison, as seems likely, it is possible
that considerable selection may have taken place.” We might add that the
geographic distribution he records could only have been made by man and by
Thus it would seem that the widespread American
fish-poison Tephrosia toxicaria and the widespread African fish-poison
Tephrosia vogelii could, botanically speaking, have been derived by long
cultivation from a common ancestor, and have passed across the Atlantic from
Africa to jungle South America in the pre-Columbian period. The hypothetical
ancestor could in turn have been derived from a variety similar to Tephrosia
candida DC., the fish poison plant of India and southern Asia. Such an
interpretation is supported by a great mass of evidence, no single piece of
which is entirely convincing but whose cumulative effect is rather
persuasive. We might mention the general configuration of ocean currents and
steady winds which link the world’s three piscicide foci, the known cultural
diffusion along much of that route, the evidence that Negrito or
Negrito-like people seem to have followed at least part of the route at a
very remote period, that they must have had some method for crossing open
water (judging from their early presence in the Andaman Islands, Madagascar,
and perhaps the Philippines), and that all recorded Negritos are familiar
with plant poisons and usually with fish poisons. Moreover, the Old World
diffusion area for piscicides with a focus in the Bengal drainage area,
which I worked out originally on the basis of botanical and cultural
evidence relevant to this practice, is the same diffusion area, with the
same focus and routes of diffusion, which James Hornell has worked out for
primitive water craft, as I discovered after my work was finished (Hornell
This is not a hypothesis which can be demonstrated
easily, and it can never be proved by the study of fish poisons, but the
study of piscicide plants can contribute a good deal to our understanding.
The chief matters on which we need information are: the genetical
interrelationships of piscicide plants, especially on an intercontinental
basis; some study of the movements of such plants as they spread; a study of
those plants which exist in the same or closely related forms over great
distances, especially pantropical and trans-Atlantic piscicide plants, to
determine how and, if possible, when they spread; and finally the
combination of this botanical evidence with the available evidence of human
migrations and cultural diffusion as determined by nonbotanical evidence.
Certainly this is no easy task.
When we turn to piscicide plants which are pantropical
(or almost so) or which are known on both sides of the South Atlantic, we
find a very promising field of investigation. We have already mentioned
Tephrosia leptostachya recorded as a piscicide in Senegambia and Brazil.
This may be only a variety of the pantropical Tephrosia purpurea L. Pers.
which we have also mentioned from many tropical areas of both hemispheres
(see previous citations). Because of variable toxicity this is not used as a
piscicide in much of its range. It seems to be the same plant as Tephrosia
piscatoria DC, recorded as a fish poison from the Pacific Islands, but may
not be the same as Tephrosia piscaloria (Ait.) Pers., which Roark cites as a
piscicide on a world-wide basis (Roark 1937:4). On the other hand, Tephrosia
purpurea is so closely related to the widespread South American piscicide
Tephrosia cinerea L. (Pers.) that some botanists (such as 0. Kuntze) include
both in the same species.
Pantropical plants of other genera which are recorded
as piscicides in at least part of their range are Cissampelos pareira L.
(used in the Philippine Islands and the West Indies according to Quisumbing
1947: 146 and Killip and Smith 1935: 14) ; Sapindus saponaria L. (Killip and
Smith 1935: 14) ;and Entada phaseoloides L. (used in the Philippines, India,
and South Africa, according to Quisumbing 1947; Chopra 1941; and Watt and
Breyer-Brandwijk 1932). More directly concerned with our problem are two
plants found on both shores of the South Atlantic. These are Lonchocarpus
sericeus (Poir.) H.B.K. and Serjania pinnata L. (Paullinia pinnaia L.). The
former is listed by Gerth van Wijk (1911: 776) as a native of the American
tropics, was listed by Pulle (1906) as a native of Dutch Guiana, and by Roig
y Mesa (1929) as a common plant in Cuba. But Sir. C. A. Moloney reported
this same plant as a common growth in West Africa (1887), and Kew Gardens
listed it in its Useful plants of Nigeria in 1911. While some writers (like
Chevalier) list this as a piscicide plant, I have found no convincing
reports that it is so used, but its transfer across the ocean remains a
puzzle. Similarly, Paullinia pinnata L. requires explanation. This is used
as a piscicide in South America but not in Africa, possibly because it has
been replaced there by more toxic species. In explaining the presence of
such plants on both sides of the ocean, Chevalier’s conclusion that human
groups use similar plants for similar purposes on both sides of the Atlantic
by “a truly marvelous genius of intuition” is not a very convincing one. It
is quite true that the fish poisoning trait might have been discovered
independently by an act
of intuition, but it would require much more than
that to produce the same species of plant on both sides of the ocean. To do
that we need either a water disseminated plant capable of floating such a
distance (which these plants are not), or human agency. Nor can that human
agency be found in some hypothetical transfer by Portuguese sailors or Negro
slaves in post-Columbian times. The violence with which slaves were seized
on the African coasts and the conditions under which they were brought to
America would have allowed them neither the opportunity nor the desire to
fill their portmanteux with piscicide plants before they left. Nor did
Portuguese or Spanish sailors have sufficient interest in this subject to
lead them to discover which plants were piscicides in order to carry them
either way across the ocean. Moreover, in the Spanish and Portuguese areas,
which were the chief ones concerned in the earliest period, the use of
piscicides was outlawed at an early date. It was forbidden by John I1 in
Spain in 1453, by an enactment which was renewed by later rulers such as
Charles I and Philip I1 (Wilbaux 1935: 12). Similar legislation was issued
for the Portuguese areas in 1565 (Chevalier 1937a: 12). Admittedly, the
early Iberian colonizers did move plants and crops between the New
Africa, the Far East, and India, but these were largely food crops and were
carried by government officials and priests. Neither class of traveller
would have been likely to carry local plants used by the aborigines in an
illegal activity which the government was seeking to extirpate, even if we
can imagine that they were much interested in such things. To be sure, it
will not be easy to prove that the use of any specified piscicide plant goes
back to pre-Columbian times on either side of the ocean, although we may
infer as much from early travel records, from the wide distribution of
certain plants, or from the dependence of such plants on native cultivation
for survival. All of this evidence is difficult to obtain. More could
possibly be achieved by showing that different plants, descended from a
common ancestor, were used as piscicides on opposite sides of the ocean. If
these plants were of a type which had to be carried by human agency, we
would be driven to accept that the transfer must have taken place in the
pre-Columbian period in the same way (and possibly at the same time) as the
transfer of the bottle-gourd, the black-fleshed chicken, and 13-chromosome
cotton. Until these questions are settled, the prehistorian must keep an
open mind on the subject and must refuse to argue an independent American
invention of fish-poisoning based on the lack of the trait in the Bering
paper has been read by Dr. Edgar Anderson of the Missouri Botanical Garden
and by Drs. Bernice G. Schubert and Walter H. Hodge of the Agricultural
Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. I am
grateful to these three authorities for correcting my botanical errors, but
my conclusions and my lines of thinking in reaching these conclusions are my
paper is much more adequate in the New World than it is for either Africa or
Asia. Much relevant material for the last two areas can be gleaned from
Roark 1932; Roark 1937; Chevalier 1937; Chevalier 1912; Bally 1937; Heckel
1910; Chopra 1941; Quisumbing 1947.
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