​​curare_po.jpgCurare comes from the Indian word woorari meaning poison. It is an arrow poison used by many South American tribes in hunting game. When the arrow finds the target the Indians say "he to whom it comes falls." Curare is a quick poison which will cause paralysis to the target causing them to asphyxiate and die. This substance is a resinous, dark brown to black mass with a sticky to hard consistency with a tarry odor. The root of the Chondrodendron tomentosum plant is one of the main ingredients in curare.

Botanical Information

Chondrodendron tomentosum flowers
Chondrodendron tomentosum fruit

Chondrodendron tomentosum seed

Curare is made from the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum which comes from the family Menispermaceae. This family also known as the moonseed family are herbaceous or woody plants. The genus is Chondrodendron and the species is tomentosum. Plants with in the genus Chondrodendron include chondrodendron species ruiz and pavon as well as tomentosum also know as pareira. The menispermaceae family consists of 70 genera and 450 species most found in tropical lowland regions. Curare Grows as a large vine in South American rainforests. It has large alternating heart shaped leaves which are smooth on top with a hairy white bottom and deeply indented veins radiating from the leaf base. This plant has both male and female flowers which are small, greenish-white, and grow in clusters. It produces an edible bitter-sweet fruit that is oval and narrow at the base.

Hierarchical position of the Family Menispermaceae

Taxonomic rank and common names
Plant kingdom
Angiosperms, flowering plants

Domestic information

map of the Amazon basin in South America
distribution map- Bolivia, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Perú

Curare is a South American vine native to the Amazon Basin. It is found growing in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Guyana, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia.
Curare is a poisonous extract used by savages in the South American jungles. The name Curare comes from the indian words woorari, woorara, curari,cururu, ourari, wourali, etc meaning poison. It was first brought to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1500's. Then in 1807 Alexander Von Humboldt was the first western account of the curare preparation.

Generally the tribes in Peru, Ecuador, and brazil use the curare vine (Chondrodendron tomentosum) as the main ingredient in making poison. They crush the stems and roots of the vine and combine it with snake and frog venom to make the poison. Then, this poisonous concoction is boiled down until it becomes a dark-colored syrup or paste. Arrows were then dipped into the substance and shot through blowguns made of bamboo. These weapons are then used for hunting. Death for birds would take one to two minutes, small animals could take up to ten minutes, and large animals up to 20 minutes. (Curare was not used in any form of warfare because the substance was to scarce and expensive).

The curare itself is not a true toxin however it is a powerful muscle relaxant that causes the target to asphyxiate and die. The first symptom of this poison is paralysis which is a sever muscle relaxation. The muscles in the face will start relaxing first, then the poison moves down the blood stream causing the neck to relax making it hard for the animal to swallow or lift its head. Next the diaphragm will stop moving preventing the lungs from working. The death is caused by the respiratory failure. The lethal dose of Curare is .1 mg/kg. The potency of curare were tested by the number of leaps a frog could make after being pricked.

The making of curare poisoned arrows.

The curare vine can also be used as an herbal medicine. In places like Brazil and Peru the vine is used to increase urination, reduce fever, and promote menstruation. The vine can also be used to treat edema, kidney stones and testicular inflammation. Externally it is used for bruises and contusions, as well as the treatment of poisonous snake bites. Curare can also be used in surgery as an anesthesia, or muscle relaxant to keep the patient still.

Medical Uses of Curare: from deathly poison to anesthesia

medical_symbol.jpg Indians in South American used curare as an arrow poison. They would make this substance from various plants and animal venom and then they would shoot the animals they were hunting. The way curare works is by affecting neuromuscular transmissions. It is basically a muscle relaxant. Actually the poison itself does not kill the animal. Curare causes paralysis which leads to asphyxiation then death.

In the 1700’s an expedition to the South American region was lead by the French academy of sciences. These scientist collected samples of curare and took them back to France to be studied. During the 19th century doctors attempt to come up with medical uses of curare. A symptom of curare is muscle relaxation. French doctors first tried to experiment with this muscle relaxant to treat diseases such as rabies, tetanus, and epilepsy. These trials were unsuccessful because the available extract was not of good enough quality or potency. Towards the end of the 19th century doctors did experimental surgeries on animals to keep them conscious but not moving during surgery. This experiment was quickly shut down because of public uproar over animal experimentation

The first breakthrough in the use of curare was In the 1930’s by a doctor named Harold King. Dr. King found that if you isolated the active principle which was tubocurarine, the muscle relaxant could be used successfully. This purified form of curare is what is actually used in medicine. Doctors were able to discover that curare contains 2 alkaloids (which is an organic base of a plant, containing nitrogen and usually oxygen). The first alkaloid is curine which paralyzes muscle fibers of the heart, and the second alkaloid is curarine, which paralyzes the motor nerve endings in voluntary muscles. An injection of these alkaloids in anesthesia produces a muscle relaxation. This drug is also employed to keep the throat open and to relieve any muscle contractions. In the very same year of this discovery a doctor by the name of Harold Griffith tested the use of curare in surgery. He was able to use curare at a lower dose to be used as anesthesia for his patient.

Although Harold Griffith was successful in this experiment, natural curare was still unpredictable. In the 1940's a Swiss pharmacologist named Daniele Bovet produced an artificial form of curare. The synthetic curare became widely used because it could be given in precise dosages with predictable effects. Synthetic curare allows for complete muscle relaxation during surgery without deep anesthesia. (anesthesia is still needed however because the muscle relaxation restricts you from moving but you can still sense pain.)

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