Rhinoceros horn cup with carved decoration, Chinese, 18th century.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
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. Historically rhino horn was ground down and used for medical purposes in China as well as for detecting poison. The 16th century pharmacist Li Shih Chen listed a number of ailments that could be cured with rhino horn; snakebites, fever, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, boils, vomiting, food poisoning, and devil posesion. He also wrote the clasic text on the preparation and use of rhino horn, still used by Chinese pharmacists today.