Poison and the Rhino Horn


These cups were thought to detect poisons. On touching the cup a poisonous liquid was believed to froth. Scientists today think that such cups may have been able to detect strong alkaloid poisons, which would have reacted with the keratin in the horn.  SSPL/Getty Images
These cups were thought to detect poisons. On touching the cup a poisonous liquid was believed to froth. Scientists today think that such cups may have been able to detect strong alkaloid poisons, which would have reacted with the keratin in the horn. SSPL/Getty Images

Can a chalice made of rhino horn detect poison? Can its ground powder serve as an aphrodisiac? The science is at best sketchy on both fronts, but such beliefs continue to endanger the world’s remaining rhinoceros species. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe explore the magical beliefs surrounding rhino horn and exactly what science has to say about the matter.

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 Emi, a Sumatran rhinoceros eats Ficus leaves with her three-week-old female calf at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden August 19, 2004 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Emi made history by becoming the first Sumatran rhino to produce two calves in captivity.
Emi, a Sumatran rhinoceros eats Ficus leaves with her three-week-old female calf at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden August 19, 2004 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Emi made history by becoming the first Sumatran rhino to produce two calves in captivity.
Mike Simons/Getty Images
'Rhinoceros', print given to Maximilian I by the King of Lisbon, 1515, (1936). A print from Durer, Und Seine Zeit, by Wilhelm Waetzoldt, Grosse Phaidon Ausgabe, 1936.
'Rhinoceros', print given to Maximilian I by the King of Lisbon, 1515, (1936). A print from Durer, Und Seine Zeit, by Wilhelm Waetzoldt, Grosse Phaidon Ausgabe, 1936.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
Assay cup for detecting poison, with a bishop's monogram, rhinoceros horn and silver, European, 1551-1600.
Assay cup for detecting poison, with a bishop's monogram, rhinoceros horn and silver, European, 1551-1600.
Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Topics in this Podcast: poison, Chemistry, biology, history, magic