Nature Goes to War

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.

Most people think biological warfare is a modern phenomenon created by scientists in a laboratory, but it’s actually been in use for centuries. From ancient times, whenever humans needed help defeating their enemies, they drafted Mother Nature into their army.


When the ancient Greeks besieged the town of Krissa in the sixth century BC, they poisoned the local wells with the toxic hellebore plant, a flowering perennial. The enemy was knocked out with extreme stomach distress, diarrhea, and in strong enough doses, death.

Another case of mass poisoning took place in the first century BC. Knowing that rhododendron was poisonous and that when bees made honey from rhododendron nectar, the honey contained alkaloids that could severely sicken humans, the Heptakomotes (who lived in what is now Turkey) used it to defend themselves against the Roman legions led by Pompey the Great. They left batches of the toxic honey near the path of Pompey’s advancing troops, and the soldiers, who thought they’d found abandoned spoils of war, ate it all. The fierce Roman soldiers— now suffering from delirium, vomiting, and diarrhea— were easily defeated by the weaker Heptakometes.


In the fifth century BC, Scythian archers (who lived in what is now the Crimea near the Black Sea) dipped their arrows into viper venom mixed with blood and animal dung. They were crack shots, the Scythians, and already famous because each archer could fire off about 20 arrows per minute, but the arrow mixture made them even more formidable. The venom contained toxins that destroyed red blood cells and caused a lot of pain; a wounded man would suffer until his eventual death from heart failure or respiratory paralysis. If, by chance, the venom didn’t work, the infection caused by the blood/ feces combination would do the job.

Then there was Hannibal, the ancient military commander best known for the elephants he brought along when he led his Carthaginian army over the Alps to attack Rome— but elephants weren’t the only trick he had up the sleeves of his tunic. In 190 BC, when his navy fought against King Eumenes of Pergamon (now in Turkey), Hannibal stocked his ships with clay pots filled with venomous snakes. When the ships came within range of Eumenes’ navy, Hannibal’s men hurled the pots at their enemies. The pots smashed on the decks, and the snakes slithered out, throwing Eumenes’s sailors into a panic. Hannibal’s forces easily won the battle.


In the sixth century BC, the Assyrians poisoned the wells of the Israelites and other enemies with a fungus —rye ergot— that caused hallucinations and, in strong enough doses, could kill.

During World War I, Britain started dropping cigarettes and propaganda leaflets from planes to try to persuade the Ottoman Turks to drop their alliance with the Germans, but the Turks would smoke the cigarettes and throw away the propaganda. Just before the Battle of Beersheba, a British intelligence officer decided to drop cigarettes laced with opium. When the British attacked the next day, the Turks were so high that they had trouble standing, let alone fighting. Needless to say, the British were victorious.


In the days of high-walled castles and fortresses, bee hives and hornet nests were used as weapons— hurled via catapults over town and castle walls. The Romans especially liked to use bees and other stinging insects in their naval battles. They’d catapult the nests and hives onto ships and wait for chaos to break out and the sailors to jump overboard.

In the second century BC, the Romans found themselves the victims, though. When they tried to climb the walls of the ancient fortified city of Hatra in Iraq, the defenders threw clay pots at them containing not just bees or wasps but— some historians believe— venomous scorpions.

(Image credit: Shantanu Kuveskar)

Centuries later, the Vietcong also used scorpions against American troops during the Vietnam War. Because the North Vietnamese often operated out of a network of underground tunnels, any U.S. soldier unlucky enough to have found one of the tunnels might be surprised by trip wires and booby traps. If a tripwire was hit, a grenade might go off… or a box filled with stinging scorpions might fall on the soldier’s head.


What is believed to be history’s first use of a plague as a weapon took place in 1346 when Mongol emperor Janiberg Khan’s troops held the town of Kaffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine) under siege. Bubonic plague had broken out among the emperor’s troops, so he had the corpses of his soldiers catapulted over the walls of Kaffa in an effort to spread the disease. It worked, and the locals got sick. But Khan wasn’t able to take advantage of Kaffa’s suffering: He had to retreat anyway because so many of his own men were dying. Once the Mongols were gone, the residents of Kaffa (many of whom were traders from Italy) tried to escape the contagion by fleeing back to Europe on flea-ridden, rat-infested ships. Some historians believe that Khan’s use of biological warfare launched the Black Death, the plague epidemic that hit Europe in the 14th century and killed about 25 million people.


In the 18th century, Native Americans were giving the British all sorts of trouble during the French and Indian Wars, so in 1763 Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America, ordered that the blankets of smallpox patients (which were usually burned) were to be given to the Delaware Indians to “reduce them.” Blankets and a handkerchief that had been used by smallpox patients were passed to the tribe leaders during a meeting to discuss peace terms. Like most Native Americans, the Delaware had no natural antibodies to protect them from diseases like smallpox, and were decimated by the disease.


The Chinese had lots of recipes for cooking up military victories. In the fourth century BC, they used an ancient version of a poison gas to defend a fortress against a besieging enemy. When enemy soldiers tried to tunnel into a citadel, the Chinese defenders “smoked them out” by burning toxic substances like sulfur, which creates poisonous sulfur dioxide when burned. The Chinese soldiers directed the smoke into the tunnels with a long pipe and a bellows. Clouds of poisonous smoke and gases overwhelmed the enemy in the small underground space— they dropped where they were and died of asphyxiation.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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What? No mention of the "Apple of Death" tree? The Manchineel is sometimes also called "Arbol de las Muerte" because of its highly toxic and irritating sap. Even standing under the tree in the rain will cause painful blisters on the skin, as the toxins are washed off of the tree and drip onto those standing underneath for shelter.

In this article about the tree, we learn:
"The most famous victim of manchineel is probably conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, who led the first European expedition into Florida in 1513. He returned to colonize the peninsula eight years later, but his invasion met resistance from Calusa fighters. Some native Caribbean people used manchineel sap to make poison arrows, and one of these sap-tipped arrows reportedly struck Ponce de Leon's thigh during the 1521 battle. He fled with his troops to Cuba, where he died of his wounds. "
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