Each July, along the dappled stream banks of Kodiak Island, just off the Alaska coast, a weedy looking wildflower produces a few dark-blue hooded blossoms. There is nothing particularly memorable about the appearance of Aconitum delphinifolium. Its leaves are thin and rather spiky. Its scrawny-looking stem cannot hold the weight of its flowers: its neighbors keep it upright. But this eminently forgettable looking plant, a member of the buttercup family, possesses a dark secret. Aconitum delphinifolium contains a toxin capable of killing one of the world’s largest animals, a 40-ton humpback whale. . . .I wrote before about the prowess of these shaman whalers, but I just learned about their use of the monkshood poison. Fascinating.
To prepare for the hunt, the whalers removed themselves from their villages, sequestering in remote island caves. Far from the curious, they prepared the poison, boiling the roots of the monkshood plant and mixing the fluid with human fat. So deadly was the resulting mixture, they believed, that birds merely flying above could drop dead from the sky. When the unguent was finally ready, the men applied it to special spearheads fashioned from slate—thin, needle sharp weapons that could penetrate a whale’s thick skin. Then they summoned their spirit helpers, performing intricate rituals in the cave, rituals involving miniature carved wooden kayaks.
Monday, April 23, 2012
The Whalers' Secret Weapon