Did all human cultures have archery?

Question inspired by Guns, Germs, and Steel wondering about the effect of local ecology on “progress”, etc. Seems if I reflect, that all early human cultures used the “throwing stick”, and the sling. But did everybody use and build bows and arrows? Or do you need a specific kind of materials, yew trees for longbows, for instance?

American Indians are typically depicted armed with the bow, but did Plains Indians, like Sioux and Cheyenne, considering how little access to wood they had. It would seem, considering how simple the principle is, that any bunch of humans who cook with fire could figure out how to build a bow and arrow.

Anybody got any facts?

For some reason the Australian Aborigines never invented the bow or the sling. It’s got nothing to do with lack of suitable materials since the continent has a huge diversity of timbers, in fact some of the best bow-making timbers in the world.
The reason why is under debate, but numerous other technological innovations never took off in Australia, including agriculture/animal husbandry, footwear, pottery, the sail etc.
It appears that Aborigines were seriously culturally isolated prior to the invention of the bow. Although later contact with Polynesians, Melanesians and Asians almost certainly would have intoduced the concept, lack of warfare with any of these peoples never necessitated the adoption of this weapon over the traditional throwing sticks and spears.
It takes years of practice to become proficient with a bow so it’s hardly worth investing time in unless it provides an advantage. If you are only killing small animals then carrying one spear is just as efficient as twenty arrows. Australia’s biggest animal by the time the bow became widespread in the rest of the world was only about 120 kilos, easily brought down with one spear. Added to this most marsupials are fairly stupid, making them very easy to stalk and making any range increase a bow might give redundant.
The only real advantage a bow could give would be in warfare. The ability to carry twenty arrows and hence kill twenty enemies would make a bow favoured over a spear, where carrying more than two would be difficult. There would seldom be either need or opportunity to kill more than one animal at a time. Outright warfare amongst Aborigines was apparently infrequent and often highly ritualised, giving bows little part to play.
In short it appears that the bow maybe wasn’t quite as obvious as it might appear, and that its adoption may have been driven more because of its usefulness in warfare than in hunting.

Interesting reply. If I follow you, you are suggesting the development of the bow would depend on local conditions, i.e., the presence or absence of marsupials, which are, by definition, too stupid to avoid being stuck by a knife on a stick.

(Marsupials are defined, in part, by the absence of mammaries. I have known a number of women who, by their own admission, are smarter than me, who might well be considered maruspials, on that evidence alone)

If you don’t need a bow, you don’t build one. So far, so good.

You lose me when you take the turn implying that the only other incidence of archery occurs for military reasons. Bit of a stretch, hardly worth mentioning, but anyway…

If it takes too long to learn to use effectively, why then is it more likely to be applied to warfare, rather than hunting for food? The rise of surplus production?

I think you’re on to something there, but needs refinement.

[nitpick]Marsupials definitely do have mammaries[/nitpick]
OK, maybe not very well explained. That’s the trouble with trying to type as I think. My typing is much faster.

I’ll try it this way. All Homo sapiens had spears, the technology was inherited from our non-human ancestors. They work very well as weapons. Bows also work well as weapons, but were not inherited from our ancestors and so the technology had to be learned and developed for all peoples at some stage. No-one is going to learn how to use a bow unless it gives him an advantage. That’s just how people are. Spears have two basic disadvantage over a bow, and if either of these come into play in a given area then someone will probably take the time to learn to use a bow. The first disadvantage is that even a large man can only realistically carry two spears at a time. When hunting small animals this isn’t really a disadvantage. One shot = one kill or the animal gets away. Either way I retreive my spear. Who cares. When hunting large animals like buffalo and elephant then maybe the ability to put three or more projectiles into an animal running away from or (if you’re unlucky) toward you will be an advantage. Austalia lacks large animals so this hunting advantage never really comes into play on the continent.
The other situation multiple shots are going to be useful is when killing humans. If I throw my spear at a mob of emus, if I hit or miss the mob runs away, no advanatge to having another shot handy. If I throw my spear at a mob of attacking humans, whether I hit or miss they will probably keep coming right at me. If I can kill four or five of them I might just have a survival advantage. Since warfare was apparently either very ritualised or based on hit-and-run ambushes amongst Aborigines the advantage of having multiple shots from a bow would probably have been of limited advantage. Added to this warfare was very rare by all accounts.
The second advantage a bow has over a spear is one of range and accuracy. This becomes more of an issue the smarter your prey becomes because you are forced to fire from further away. Marsupials are notoriously dense. They can be stalked easily from downwind and attacked from a few feet away. Bows may actually prove a disadvantage for this type of hunting because they make it difficult to just leap up and fire. They would certainly provide little advantage. In areas with smarter wildlfe bows may be more useful. The range advantage may also be useful against humans. As an interesting sidenote though, apparently American Indians were fairly ordinary shots, and relied mostly on sneaking up to within a few feet of their prey and then plugging it. In these cases the ability to shoot a wounded bison would still give a bow some advantage.
I will buy that the agriculture-surplus food-increased population-warfare cycle probably played a part in the popularisation of the bow, but this is another question (ie why didn’t Aborigines develop agriculture and/or wholesale warfare). The factor limiting the development of the bow was the lack of warfare.

and here I am thinking that some cultures didn’t have bows because they hadn’t have bullseyes… :slight_smile:

One thing Gaspode (“Woof?”) alludes to is the fact that there are bows and there are GREAT BOWS.

Any of you who tried to make a bow and arrow in Boy Scouts or such realize that just tying a string to a stick doesn’t produce a devastating weapon.

Most of the bows in history are not very devastating weapons. My suspicion, contrary to Gaspode’s theory, is that arrows would be most effective against small, fast animals such as birds or rabbits. Their greater range and faster flight speed would make them more effective than a spear, but a single shot would still bring down the animal.

Against a mammoth or such, I would rather have myself and twenty companions all flinging spears at it. The greater mass of the spear would make it more effective. The Native Americans and the buffalo not withstanding.

But, I do agree that Australia’s sedentary fauna likely did not require bows.

The Romans largely eschewed bows in favor of javelins. Partly because the development of iron armor made the common bow less effective and partly because the organization of the legion made it possible to re-arm the legionnare during the course of battle.

It was only when they faced the Parthenians who used composite bows from horseback that they were overmatched. A composite bows augements the wood with bone and sinew to increase the stiffness and elasticity. But to use such a bow effectively, especially from horseback, required a lifetime of training.

One of the other Great Bows of history, was the English long bow. The long bow uses nearly six feet of the very springy yew wood to increase the stiffness and elasticity. English yeomen were required to train with them every Sunday to maintain the strength to use them.

To keep a long story from being even longer, my point is that not all bows are as effective as those shown in Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. Knowing this, it is easier to see why some cultures didn’t need them.

long before this battle, teh turks had short bows that we call “reflex re-curves” that could shoot farther than any modern bow up until about 1970. Accuracy and training were largely unnecessary in terms of large scale battle.

English bows are, and always have been…primative.

BTW, the yew bow is by no means, and in no sense, a “Great Bow”.

Interesting discussion. I have to disagree that it takes more effort to learn the bow, though. I have done both archery and made attempts at spear throwing, and I found it much easier to hit a target at a distance of, say, 30 yards with an arrow than a spear, even when I was a beginner with both. Closer distances might make the aim more comparable, but I think that especially with small targets, the bow would be preferable. I’m not an expert, but I seem to recall seeing films of Kalahari bushmen using spears to hunt large animals like giraffes, and bow and arrow for smaller creatures. Maybe someone with more expertise can correct my memory on that.

I think Gaspode has the right idea: Archery is more likely a technology that spread than one that was repeatedly invented in a variety of different environments. If it appeared only once or maybe twice independently, it is easy to see why it would be common throughout Eurasia and Africa, and the Americas, but not in isolated Australia.

Why the Australians didn’t pick it up once exposed to the idea remains to be explained, though. I don’t find the lack of warfare sufficient to explain why a better (I believe) hunting tool would not be adopted. Granted that they had good wood, what kind of cordage did the Australians have available to them?

To answer the OP, no. The Bealeric islanders used slings, and the Romans did not use bows and arrows. We’re talking up to 200BC so these guys, given a long period of time, never invented bows. You can almost say that the Romans conquered a large part of the world without bows and arrows. Their archers were acquired from allies or subjugated peoples.

For sure you needed the right kind of tree to make bows and arrows.

The princple of bows and arrows is actually a complicated one. You needed 3 things for this to happen. A projectile, the bow itself and the bowstring. A javelin only needed one of the above and a sling needed 2.

When you’re talking about plains Indians or the long bow, that’s at least 1000AD, a long ways into weapons development.

Your point about a large number of spears being more effective than a large number of arrows is quite right of course Keeper. The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence from archaeological evidence or from the observation of extant primitive peoples that large numbers of people ever hunted any large prey. This mental image derives from thousands of pictures in children’s books showing packs of cave men clubbing bears and mammoths, but there is no evidence that it ever actually occurred. Indians were known to drive buffalo over cliffs, but probably only after the introduction of the horse and the ability to trade the meat and hides they procured with Europeans. Even if this was a traditional practice it would be an almost unique situation, most places don’t have cliffs, and one that required no weapons of any kind. Commonly one or at most two men would go out hunting deer or buffalo alone. The same hunting pattern applies to primitive cultures in Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. Pack hunting isn’t a human tactic.
The first drawback of this hunting style is that a group of twenty men moving across the landscape would produce so much noise and smell that the prey would easily detect them. Added to this if twenty men all hunt together and they fail to locate prey then twenty men and their families starve, so it is far more efficient to hunt in small groups or individually. Hunter/gatherer societies are almost by definition small since they must exist within environmental constraints more than farmers. Small numbers of people mean small groups of hunters. By the time semi-agricultural status is reached the development of the bow always seems well under way, and any weapon is probably more important for warfare than for hunting.
If we accept that hunting occurred in small groups, even three or four men, then the ability to be able to carry more than two projectiles apiece becomes important against large prey.
The use of bows against small prey is also of limited practical value. Mammals like rabbits are most effectively caught by the use of dogs, snares, poisons and traps, not by shooting, and these are the practices commonly used to eliminate vermin. Anyone who is in a position to make a bow can obviously make a snare string. Small birds may be easier to shoot with a bow but I can’t think of anywhere in the world where small birds were actually a significant food source, certainly not important enough to spend years practicing fletching and archery just so you could bring one down. Large ground birds like turkeys don’t present much different problems to animals.
Far from being sedentary Australia’s fauna has an over-representation of nomadic animals. They’re fairly active, just very, very dumb and this makes them easy to stalk. One trick for killing an emu is to lie on your back in long grass and kick you legs in the air. An emu will actually walk up to within meters to see what the hell you are. This is hilarious, I’ve actually tried it. Once they realise that you’re a human they run like hell, but if you wanted to you could spear one quite easily using this technique. Nice animals, but thick as sh*t in the neck of a bottle.
Irrespective of efficiency, can you actually think of any other cultures that haven’t developed the use of the bow?
Oh yes and ‘woof’
(Gaspode, named after the famous Gaspode.)

APB, I think you misread me. I never said it takes more effort to learn archery, just that it takes effort. All human societies always knew how to use a spear. It’s a legacy from our ancestors. Nobody is going to devote energy to learning how to use a new weapon effectively if there is no advantage associated with it. That’s people for ya.

Kalahari bushmen (at least all the ones of read of or seen) hunt large game with poisoned arrows, an entirely different kettle of fish. In this case the ability to carry numerous prepared projectiles is important, as is the ability to keep the poison covered in a quill. In the absence of poison, who knows.

As for Australian cordage, early settlers and explorers commented that the ropes made by Aborigines were far superior in quality to the ropes used on board English ships. These ropes were made from a variety of materials including human and animal hair and plant fibres. The use of nets and rope bags was widespread. Added to this I gather most bowstrings were traditionally animal gut, which isn’t exactly in short supply to a hunting community. There was certainly no reason why Aborigines would have lacked the materials to manufacture bows. I really think the only logical explanation is that there was absolutely no advantage in having a bow.


Dern tootin’ the Plains Indians had bows!

And, lest we forget that the Great Plains extend north into Canada-- :wink:

The modern perception of the Great Plains as a flat, treeless wasteland would have been incorrect during the pre-colonization period. The Plains are actually more rolling than flat, and even today, in pastureland, every little draw and valley that gives shelter from the wind will have trees growing in it (if the rancher leaves them alone). Back before the white man arrived, with his voracious appetite for firewood, building material, and wood to burn for making iron and bricks, and for burning lime for mortar, there would have been plenty of wood available for bowmaking. The wood of choice was (and still is, among traditional bowyers) something called “osage orange”, or bois d’arc. Midwestern schoolchildren recognize it as those big ugly green inedible “hedge oranges”.


Mr. Zambezi, my apologies for not mentioning the recurved bow of the Turks. I am familiar with the bow, but wasn’t certain about its origins, so I skipped over it.

Well… if you mean as far a a technological development, I would concur. The English took advantage of a native, springy wood, and then used a longer stick than most other cultures did. I meant it in terms of “effective”, which it undoubtedly was.

I am basing my statements on watching the History Channel. So, I cannot cite the source at the moment. To draw a bow with 100 lb pull actually requires significantly more force across the back. A healthy, strong man could fire it a couple of times before tiring, but to fire ten/twenty times required a great deal of “working out” with the bow.

Modern bows do not typically have as large of a pull as old bows, but [talking out of my ass] are probably designed to be more effective at a given pull. [/talking out of my ass]