Biosecurity Mini-history: Early Use of Bioweapons

Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)
Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)

While most people today think of biological weapons as a relatively modern advancement, it is important to recognize that their existence predates recorded human history. Ancient civilizations had a working knowledge of plant and animal toxins, as well as of devastating diseases such as plague and smallpox.  While these people had yet to discover the origins of such diseases, they were aware of how diseases could spread from one person or animal to another.

Biological Agents
A very early example of biological warfare happened during the 12-15th century B.C.E.  The Hittites, whose empire included what is now modern day Turkey, were known to have driven diseased animals and people into enemy territories. This was a likely common method of warfare around the world.  One of the early and better-known uses of biological weapons was the Mongol siege of Caffa, the port city now known as modern day Feodosija, Ukraine.  The Tartar Mongols in 1343 B.C.E., the port city of Caffa was held under siege for years, until the Mongol army was devastated by a plague (Yersinia pestis) outbreak and catapulted their infected dead over the city walls.  The disposal of these dead bodies in Caffa likely infected many of the city’s inhabitants, including fleas and rats that further spread infection upon the population. The following is an account of the siege from a survivor.

What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army.”

Toxins differ from other biological weapons agents in that they are the non-living products of living organisms without the ability to reproduce or replicate and have no incubation period before their symptoms start (which can be days to months for some diseases).  The use of plant and animal toxins on arrows and darts was one of the earliest biological weapons.  This is evident in the etymology of the word ‘toxin,’ which derives from ancient Greek root ‘tóxo-,’ meaning bow.  Toxins were also used in a variety of other methods in warfare.  Both the ancient Mayans and Romans were known to have used bee hives and hornet nests against their opponents, deploying the live insects to deliver the toxins. Similarly, in 184 B.C.E., the Carthaginian general Hannibal ordered his navy to catapult clay pots filled with venomous snakes onto enemy ships, helping him win the battle. Toxins were also used to poison enemy food and water supplies. For example, Hannibal and Julius Caesar likely used mandrake root to poison their enemies’ wine, and in 590 B.C.E., the ruler of Athens had the toxic roots of the beautiful hellebore plant dumped in the water supply of the city Kirrha, allowing him to take it without opposition.

As you can see, the use of biological weapons is far from modern. However, while modern advancements of science and biotechnology have brought many societal benefits, the dual use nature of some research has allowed the creation and modification of biological warfare agents and delivery methods.