“And Jehu drew a bow with his full strength, and smote Jehoram between his arms, and the arrow went out at his heart, and he sunk down in his chariot.” ~ 2 Kings 9:24, The Bible.
From being Cupid, the Roman love god’s favorite weapon with which he shot love arrows to make people fall in love, to Arjuna’s fatally potent arm in the epic tale of Mahabharata, to the multiple references to the use of arrows in the Holy Bible, to being fictional hero Robin Hood’s armament, indeed the history of bow and arrow travels way back in time. Strewn all over mythology, being the preferred weapon of God, man and mythical creatures (read half man and half horse Greek mythical creatures called Centaurs) alike, the bow and arrow history is truly intriguing. The earliest use of bows and arrows by man has been traced back to the Stone Age. Here’s a brief history of bows and arrows, which shall look into the earliest days of this weapon, as well as its course down the ages.
History of Bow and Arrow
Almost 300,000 – 30,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic age, the only few weapons known to early man were those that they crudely craved out of stone. It was during this period of the stone age that men made triangular arrow heads out of stone, fragments of which were unearthed in places where the Mousterian culture thrived, that is the current day modern European as well west Asian regions, such as Persia. Pointy arrow heads that are possibly 60,000 years old, were also found in African areas like Egypt. Projectile bone arrowheads were discovered in the South African Sibudu Cave, which are nothing less than 61,000 years old. Used primarily for hunting animals and for self defense purposes, earliest arrow tips were hardened by burning them. The arrow shafts were made from timber. Slowly, the need for aerodynamic stabilization, feathers, called fletches, were glued to the opposite terminus of the split shafts, so as to ensure greater accuracy of the arrows, with regards to flying in a straight line. The incorporation of fletches, derived from French flèche, dates back to about 16,000 BC.
The oldest remnants of bows are those unearthed at the German Stellmoor ones and date back possibly to about 8,000 BC, as per the archaeological association. However, their actual dates could never be determined as they were completely spiflicated in Hamsburg in the World War II, before carbon 14 dating saw the light of day. The next oldest sample of the bow are definitely the Danish Holmegaard ones made of elm wood. These convex bellied and pointy-tipped bows are as old as 6,000 BC.
Around 1200BC, the cross bow was developed both in the Roman and the oriental world simultaneously. Just before that, an archaic race of the Hittites started the practice of mounted archery, wherein arrows were shot when the chariot was in motion with the archer on its lap. This technique received further boosting when races like those of the Huns, Mongols and other native tribes of the Eurasian steppes adopted mounted archery along with the use of special composite bows. These specially curved bows made of several strips of timber were fastened at the edges with narrow patches of animal horn and frontally held together by sinews of beasts. The use of these arrows spread faster than fire among Egyptians, Koreans, Japanese among others. The Scynthians went on to improvise a little more and actually invented arrowheads shaped like clover leaves, which they shot from atop the horseback.
By 450BC, the Chinese were churning out hordes of bronze crossbows, the deadliest of all the bow inventions till then. As per the records of Greek historian Siculus, Grecians had used crossbows in their battle with the Motya circa 397 BC. Ancient Greeks however, had been using wooden crossbows called ‘gastraphetes’, much before 400 BC. Thus, the ones described by Siculus were believed to be modern reinventions of the older version. The specialty of the crossbow lay in the fact, that it had a mechanical propeller on which the bow was fixed, with a trigger that, when pressed, released the arrow, most accurately. It can be called the ancestor of the modern-day rifles in many ways. North Americans, who learned the art of making bows and arrows only around 500 AD, began to create shorter composite arrows only in the 16th century, after acquiring horses from their Spanish conquistadors. Cross bows summoned in a new era of warfare and were heavily used during the middle ages. However, given their weight, crossbows fell out of fashion after the 13th century, with the Welsh improvisation of the swifter and lighter longbow.
Even though the longbow became famous during the 100 Year War that took place between 1337 to 1453, by the English, the oldest fragment of a partially finished longbow made of yew wood, is the one found with the naturally mummified Ötzi the Iceman, uncovered on September, 1991. Dating back to 3,300 BC, the longbow found with the iceman, along with 2 broken flint-topped arrows and a quiver full of unfinished ones, was 72 inches long, in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the Austrian and Italian border. The English also revolutionized arrows by designing razor-sharp sleek dagger-like arrows called ‘bodkins’, during this war. They kept using the longbow for a long time, even after the revolutionary gunpowder was launched in the 9th century. In fact it was only in 1346 at the battle of Crécy that the English embraced gunpowder for the first time and that could possibly mark the decline of the use of bows and arrows. The last improvement of the crossbow was done by the Chinese who used repeating crossbows, which shot out arrows one after the other, as displayed during the First Sino-Japanese War between the Meiji Japan and the Chinese Qing Dynasty, that was held from 1894 to 1895.
It was the war in Europe between 1618 and 1648, known as the ‘Thirty Year War’, that rang the death knell for bows and arrows as weapons of war. However, even though bows and arrows may have ceased to be used as warfare weapons, the popularity of archery as a sport continues. After archery became an official sport in 1583, during a competition in Finsbury, England, which saw the participation of almost 3000 people, it was accepted as an Olympic sport during the second Olympic games organized in Paris in the year 1900.
Here’s hoping that I have been as successful in initiating you to the bow and arrow history, as the Chinese had been in teaching the ways of civil archery to the Japanese, circa 6th century. You can also learn how to make wooden bow and arrows just for fun, after this refreshing dose of history.