Toxin and the poison arrow

The use of poisoned arrows by the Scythians is one of the earliest known examples of biological warfare, that is, the use of toxins to deliberately injure or kill. Remarkably, two and a half thousand years after Scythian archers used toxins on their arrows we are using the Ancient Greek word almost in its original meaning.

The Oxford Dictionary defines toxin as a poison of plant or animal origin, especially one produced by or derived from microorganisms. It is an everyday, modern English word used in medicine and biology.

During the scientific revolution from the mid 17th century English began to replace Latin as the academic language. But scientists then adapted and created words from the Latin and Greek languages to give their work a sense of importance. For instance many branches of science got their names this way, for example biology from Gk bio for life and logia meaning to speak (of); and geology from Gk geo for earth. At this time, toxic was borrowed from Latin toxicus meaning poisoned, which derived from Latin toxicum for poison.

Toxic had the same meaning as poisonous. However, when toxin was adapted in the late 19th century from toxic it’s meaning more specifically referred to poisons produced by plants, animals or microorganisms. Poison describes any substance that has a harmful effect including non-biological substances.

The exciting thing is that the word has strong links to another less known civilisation, that of the Scythians. The Scythians live large in history through the writings of Herodotus, the Greek historian. They were a group of central-eastern European tribes that called themselves Skudat, the archers: the Persians called them Sakâ and the Greeks Skythai.

Latin directly borrowed toxicum from the Greek word toxikon, which literally meant arrow. It is an abbreviation of the Greek expression toxikon (pharmakon) which meant arrows (poison for). The Greeks used the word to describe the poison on the Scythian poison-tipped arrows. Greek archers did not poison their arrows.

According to Herodotus, Scythians created their deadly poison by mixing the decomposed bodies of venomous adders with human blood and dung and burying the mix in sealed vessels until it was putrefied. Modern scientists think this would have contained gangrene and tetanus bacteria (Clostridium perfringins and Clostridium tetani) as well as the snakes’ venom. The venom would have attacked red blood cells and the nervous system and may have stopped the victims from breathing if strong enough. If the victim survived the paralysis they would have died of the gangrene or tetanus infections.

Toxin, as a biological poison derived from microorganisms, and was exactly the poison on the Scythian arrow from which the word is derived.