A common practice of many prehistoric cultures, the bow and arrow stretches back in time to an era before recorded history. The earliest definite record of the use of the bow and arrow dates from 17,500 to 18,000 years ago in Mannheim-Vogelstang, Germany. You see a second record at Stellmore 11,000 years ago.
Bow and Arrow History: Probable Records
We talked about definite records with the oldest going back 18,000 years, but some archaeologists found possible records of the bow and arrow used as far back as 60,000 to 72,000 years ago in South Africa. Sibidu Cave, for example, found records of a 61,700-year-old sharpened bone artifact. Most archaeologists who analyzed the data concluded it was likely an arrowhead.
The evidence found at Sibidu Cave predates anything that they found in Eurasia by 10,000 years. One of the reasons archaeologists haven’t called this definite evidence is because they found it in a hearth. Not everything that looks like a bone-tipped arrow is one. Most experts, however, agree that they originally used this as a weapon before they discarded it in the hearth.
Outside of Africa, we have another probable record of the bow and arrow’s use 48,000 years ago in Fa Hien Cave, Sri Lanka, in the southwestern part of the country. At this location, archaeologists found strong evidence of more than 130 bone arrowheads. It represents the first time that anyone found evidence of this technology used outside of Africa.
Likely, the people of this region used the bow and arrow to shoot squirrels, monkeys and other tree-dwelling creatures because historians still don’t know exactly how ancient humans could have survived in a resource-poor environment without it. Using a spear, a weapon commonly used before the bow and arrow, against fast-moving and small creatures would have made survival far more difficult.
Archery is like a journey. It begins with a love for shooting a bow and a passion for watching our arrows fly.—Ron Laclair
Still, this remains probable evidence, rather than definite. Archaeologists examined the form, size and damage found on the arrowheads, and they concluded that they were more than likely used as arrows. Fractures on the heads suggest high-speed impacts, such as that of an arrow.
Since the 1980s, Fa Hien Cave remains one of the most important archaeological sites in South Asia. Along with evidence of arrow use, they found bone tools and scraping and piercing tools, such as what you might use for making a net. That matters because little evidence of how ancient humans constructed nets exist anywhere else.
Use of the Bow and Arrow 10,000 Years Ago
The bow and arrow pops up in a number of locations around 10,000 years ago. Some of the parts of the world where they found evidence of its use include:
- Naturuk in Turkana County, Kenya (10,000 years ago)
- Northern Iraq (10,000 years ago)
- Natufian culture near Haifa, Israel (12,500 B.C. to 9,000 B.C.)
- Stellmoor near Hamburg, Germany (11,000 years ago)
- Holmegarde, Denmark (8,000 years ago)
This shows us some of the earliest historic definite uses of the bow and arrow, but now lets have a look at its widespread acceptance across the planet in a number of locations.
Like with writing and other types of technologies, you don’t have a single culture that appears to have invented the bow and arrow, since it popped up in a number of places near the same time.
Bow and Arrow: Use in North America
Archaeological evidence suggests that use of the bow and arrow in the Americas likely happened in four separate waves:
- 12,000 years ago
- 4,500 years ago
- 2,400 years ago
- 1,300 years ago
Most believe that it first began with its spread from Alaska where they used it to hunt caribou and other creatures. From about 500 AD, the bow and arrow became widely known to the indigenous peoples of North America. Before the adoption of the bow and arrow, they used the atlatl.
Thoughts are like arrows, once released, they strike their mark. Guard them well or one day, you may be your own victim.—Navajo Proverb
In the Aleutian Islands, they used the bow and arrow almost exclusively in warfare because you couldn’t shoot an arrow from a kayak, due to its instability. You have a number of sites where massacres with the bow and arrow took place in 17th century Alaska, known as the Bow and Arrow Wars. Some say that they adopted the use of the bow and arrow in modern-day Iowa as early as 11,500 years ago.
Bow and Arrow History: 5,000 to 1,000 Years Ago
From the 5,000 to 1,000-year-ago period, we see the most widespread adoption of the bow and arrow. In Ancient Egypt, for example, it became used extensively during its Old Kingdom era from 2686 BC onward or about 5,000 years ago. The first bows in ancient Egypt were made from antelope horns or simple wood. This became so extensively used that the bow and arrow became the main weapon that they used.
China’s use of the bow and arrow dates back to the Shang Dynasty, which happened from 1766 BC to 1027 BC. The earliest known written record of archery in China comes from mounted archery, which happened during the Han Dynasty, two dynasties after the Shang.
In the beginning of bow and arrow history, they largely made arrows from bone, flint, horn and bronze. Eventually, many cultures began to use iron and steel. Iron and steel arrowheads began to show up during the medieval period, and people liked them because they were more durable than bone, horn or flint.
During this time, you saw the bow and arrow used across the world as everywhere seemed to adopt its use. Most cultures used the bow and arrow first as a tool for hunting, and they used it secondly as a tool for war.
While they widely adopted the bow and arrow during this time, Greece and Rome largely resisted the use of the bow and arrow, opting for the long-ranged javelin instead.
Throughout the Western Mediterranean, they simply didn’t use the bow and arrow traditionally.
Unfortunately for them, the Greeks and Roman came up against hard opponents like the Mongols, the Huns and the Seljuq Turks that did use them, which led to the adoption of the use of the bow and arrow even by the Greeks and Romans.
You saw certain cultures, however, like the Spartans who disdained the bow and arrow and never used it because they saw it as a coward’s weapon to kill from afar.
Spartan culture honored the brave and the direct conflict of the sword and shield. The invention of metallurgical armors like shields and cuirasses, also made it easy for them to block arrows and to further disdain the technology.
To give you an idea of how widespread the bow and arrow was at one point in its use, let’s have a look at all the cultures that made use out of it:
- Indus civilization
- South Africans
Invention of the Crossbow
Another form of the bow and arrow showed up as the invention of the crossbow in the 7th century in ancient China during the Zhou Dynasty. The first written record of it came during the warring Han period in the Eastern Han Dynasty where they had the repeating crossbow.
Important note that while they had this technology in the 7th century in China, a written record of it goes back to 4th century Greece where the multiple bolt crossbow first appeared. The passage says that they mounted this on a three-wheeled carriage that they had stationed on the ramparts.
It took some time, however, for them to fully perfect the crossbow as a weapon, and the bow and arrow was still widely used because of how you could shoot more arrows with it in the same time that it took to wind up a crossbow.
Bow and Arrow: Against the Gun
Like with the invention of the crossbow, the earliest invention of the gun didn’t make the bow and arrow obsolete because of several problems with it. The earliest depiction of a gun shows up in the 12th century, and it didn’t outdo the bow and arrow because of how it took so long to reload the weapon. It didn’t have the same efficiency as what it does today.
The gun only took the place of the bow and arrow in the 16th century, and it became widely ingrained after the American Revolution when they began to take this weapon more seriously. Along with its longer load time, the issues with it were that you couldn’t use it in a rain. Wet gunpowder doesn’t fire. Weather conditions could impact if you could use your weapon in a life or death scenario. This meant that while the gun was used, the bow and arrow still reigned supreme for a period of time.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1807 at the invention of the percussion system that the bow and arrow largely became obsolete because it couldn’t compete at that point. Still, you saw Native American cultures make use out of the bow and arrow up until the 20th century.
Modern-Day Use of the Bow and Arrow
We have journeyed across the great expanses of history and showed you the many regions of the world where they used it. A few hundred years ago, the use of the bow and arrow was widespread. Today, people still use the bow to hunt, but you rarely see it used for warfare. Some elite military teams like the Green Berets use the crossbow in warfare today, but it’s rarely used. People now use it largely for hunting.
Some hunters like to hunt with the bow and arrow because they consider it a greater challenge and art form in the battle against man and beast.
Even in the modern era, the bow continues to evolve. They invented the compound bow in 1966. This made it easier to pull back the bow and fire a shot because it lets off 70 to 85 percent of the draw weight.
To further show you that the bow and arrow continues to evolve, they invented the whisker biscuit, a containment chamber for the arrow in 1999 to make use of the bow and arrow easier when hunting. I wrote an article about that here. This was one of the latest inventions to help make the use of the bow and arrow easier when hunting.
The history of the bow and arrow is the history of man.—Fred Bear
While most of us no longer use the bow and arrow for warfare like we once did, the use of it for hunting hasn’t evaporated. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducted a survey in 2016 that learned how an estimated 11 million Americans still use the bow for hunting. Even to this day, the bow and arrow maintains an honorary position in Sioux culture and folklore and many other Native American cultures as well. People throughout the world still hold the bow and arrow in deep regard. That will likely continue for as long as humans continue to exist.