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For millennia before the invention of guns and gunpowder, bows and arrows were the most efficient human instruments for killing at a distance. Their advantage was so great that bows and arrows spread across the Old World, with innovations across cultures, from the undetermined place they first appeared, and were still expanding southward in the Americas when Columbus arrived.
Arrowheads, found scattered across most of the Earth, count as one of the most common objects of archeological significance, outnumbered only by broken bits of pottery. It is easy to imagine how an arrow aimed at a distant human enemy or hunted animal often missed its target and got lost to remain undisturbed in its lodging place for uncounted centuries, only for us to find it by chance. But isolated arrowheads, separated from other human artifacts, are usually impossible to date and tell us little or nothing about who made and used them.
A few rock paintings of bowmen running and shooting in North Africa and elsewhere show that as much as 10,000 years ago archery had come to dominate local warfare. And again it is not difficult to see why that was so, for a weapon that can wound or kill at a distance of up to hundred yards far outranged older projectiles, and the peoples who first possessed them could attack others with impunity. So once lethally powerful bows and arrows were invented—wherever and whenever that may have occurred—they were bound to spread, and did so throughout Eurasia and Africa, before carvings and written records began to supplement sporadic, undated arrowhead finds.
Uncertain, Ancient Origins
Next to nothing can be said of how bows became so powerful. They must have been invented somewhere in Asia or Africa, and sometime between about 30,000 and 15,000 years ago. They may have been derived from small, soft-strung bows used to twirl a fire drill (a pointed stick) fast enough to start a flame: by wrapping the bow string around the stick, pressing the point against a block of wood and then pulling the bow back and forth quickly, the heat of friction ignited a pile of specially prepared dry tinder. But far bigger bows, resilient enough to launch lethal arrows, were much harder to construct than the small and weak bows needed to twirl fire drills.
These large bows needed to be symmetrically shaped and made of tough, resilient kinds of wood able to bend and then spring back into shape time and again. Strings strong enough to bend such bows must have been even harder to make and fasten securely to the tips of the bow, since they had to withstand repeated tests of sudden high tension and instantaneous release. Arrows that could fly straight were almost as difficult to fashion. Attaching stone heads to wooden shafts firmly, and arranging suitably trimmed bird feathers at the rear to assure a smooth path through the air, required precise skill, as well as strong glues and/or some sort of slender binding material.
It may have taken many centuries for humans to solve all the problems of making such bows and arrows—and even when they knew how, it was never assured that people living in different regions and climates of the Earth would find suitable raw materials. But as soon as these formidable weapons did appear, neighbors immediately needed them too for self-defense; without bows they were liable to speedy extermination by those who did have them.
Innovations across Cultures
It is also clear that improvements in the design of bows did not cease. In particular, bows made only of wood, which remained usual in most of the world, were overtaken by more complicated compound bows as early as 2200 BCE in Mesopotamia, where a stone carving shows an Akkadian king carrying a shortened bow with the distinctive shape associated with the compound bows that later generations of steppe nomads used with great effect. Compound bows were cunningly constructed of wood, bone, and sinew to increase their resilience and power. They had the additional advantage of being short and easy to use on horseback, so these powerful bows remained the supreme weapon of Eurasian steppe warriors until infantry guns matched and surpassed them after about 1700 CE.
Even more efficient (and far more difficult to manufacture) were cross-bows, invented in China about 350 BCE; they were cocked by using both hands (later by winding a winch) and released by using a trigger. The winch could bend stiffer bows (eventually made of steel) and fired short, metal arrows that could penetrate most forms of armor. But cross-bows needed metal parts for trigger and cocking mechanisms, and except in China, where large numbers of infantrymen used them against invaders with considerable success, they never became very numerous.
Within Eurasia and Africa, bows and arrows assumed different societal roles. As Homer’s Iliad makes clear, ancient Greeks thought that archers were cowardly because they did not expose their bodies to the risk of wounds and death in hand-to-hand combat. With some exceptions Europeans long preferred spears and swords to bows. So when Catalan crossbowmen handily defeated French knights in Sicily (1282), and when English (often Welsh) bowmen shot down French knights during the Hundred Years’ War (1338–1453), their successes shocked the upper classes of Western Europe.
On the steppes, however, bows dominated hunting and warfare from the time riding on horseback became common (by 350 BCE), and since horsemen had the advantage of superior mobility, they often conquered civilized peoples to the south and made their style of warfare normative through most of Asia. The Chinese relied mainly on infantry archers to defend fortified cities and landscapes, while Japanese fighting men, like Europeans, honored face-to-face sword combat more than archery.
Ancient Egyptian armies used bows and chariots like those of Mesopotamia, but too little is known about sub-Saharan Africa to allow historians to say anything in detail about the use of bows and arrows for warfare and hunting in that part of the continent. We do know that Australians never learned to use bows before Europeans arrived, but in the Americas bows showed up in Alaska among Inuit peoples sometime between 100 CE and 500 CE, and soon spread southward among Amerindian tribes.
Very likely it was the arrival of bows and arrows that compelled salmon fishers along the Pacific coast to gather together into large villages for protection about 500 CE, and the disappearance of the Hopewell peoples, who built elaborate ritual mounds in the Ohio River valley between about 500 BCE and 500 CE, may have been due to harassment by peoples from the north equipped with bows and arrows. At any rate, when large so-called Mississippian settlements appeared at Cahokia, Illinois, and elsewhere after 800, they were defended by elaborate earthworks and palisades designed for protection against arrows. Simultaneously, Toltecs and their Chichimec allies introduced bows to Mexico, but subsequently Aztec warriors rejected them, since they waged war mainly to capture prisoners whose hearts they would offer to the sun god to make sure of divine favor.
In most of South America bows remained unknown when Columbus arrived. But Arawak tribes living along the northern coast of the continent were then using bows and arrows to attack Taino inhabitants of the Caribbean islands—a process interrupted by the arrival of Spaniards who, backed with superior weapons, hastened the Tainos’ extinction by bringing novel but lethal diseases onto the scene.
If the invention and spread of bows and arrows profoundly changed human affairs, what about their effect on animals? The impact of a weapon that killed at a distance upon animal herds is wholly unrecorded, and can only be imagined. Prey animals had to learn to fear and flee from human beings whenever they sensed their presence, and at first, when bows were new, kills must have become far easier. How quickly animals became more wary, making human hunting more difficult again, is unknowable but may have been quite quick. At any rate, no major extinctions can be attributed to bows, for humans had been capable of using spears to extinguish unwary game animals on islands and in the Americas long before bows extended the range of their power to kill.
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