The bow and ar­row re­vo­lu­ti­o­ni­sed hunting in a way t­hat is still re­le­vant to­day.


I­think one of the re­a­sons the bow and ar­row fas­ci­na­tes me is be­cau­se it is such an old weapon, ha­ving been u­sed for so ma­ny y­e­ars du­ring his­to­ry. Isn’t it won­der­ful t­hat the bow and ar­row is still po­pu­lar as a hunting weapon to­day – so ma­ny y­e­ars af­ter the in­ven­ti­on of muz­z­le­lo­a­ders and the mo­dern rifle?

It is said t­hat one the most im­por­tant e­vents t­hat occur­red in the his­to­ry of man was the ap­pea­ran­ce of the bow and ar­row. This weapon re­vo­lu­ti­o­ni­sed e­ar­ly hunting met­hods by e­na­bling pe­op­le to kill a­ni­mals at a dis­tan­ce. It is al­so spe­cu­la­ted t­hat the ar­row re­sul­ted in the in­ven­ti­on of the shield and bo­dy ar­mour for pro­tecti­on. E­ar­ly shields we­re ma­de of le­at­her or wo­ven reeds and we­re a­de­qua­te to stop ar­rows, be­cau­se bows we­re t­hen ma­de from tree bran­ches and a­ni­mal ten­dons and we­re not very po­wer­ful.

The ancient Egyp­ti­ans we­re the first pe­op­le to use the bow and ar­row ex­ten­si­ve­ly. As e­ar­ly as 5 000 BC they we­re u­sing bows for hunting and war.

The e­ar­liest men­ti­on of the bow and ar­row in the Bi­ble is in re­fe­ren­ce to E­sau who u­sed a bow (Ge­ne­sis 27:3). The Egyp­ti­ans and As­sy­ri­ans are men­ti­o­ned as ar­chers, as is the clan of Ben­ja­min. Job 20:24 re­fers to a bow ma­de of hard, re­si­lient wood, and Psalm 18:15 men­ti­ons a bow ma­de of cop­per. The wooden bow was streng­the­ned

with wo­ven string or twis­ted gut strings. The in­si­de part of so­me bows was ma­de of horn whi­le the string was ma­de of twis­ted li­nen or from the gut of an ox or ca­mel. The left hand of the ar­cher was of­ten pro­tected a­gainst the string by a le­at­her strip or glo­ve. The shafts of the ar­rows we­re ma­de of ca­ne or po­lis­hed wood. A sharp point was u­sed, ma­de of i­ron or bron­ze. Fe­at­hers at the re­ar end al­lo­wed the ar­row to fly s­traig­ht. So­me­ti­mes the ar­ro­w­he­ad was gi­ven a barb so t­hat an e­ne­my could not re­mo­ve it from his bo­dy. Ar­chers car­ried their ar­rows in a qui­ver on their backs or at their si­des on the rig­ht. Oc­ca­si­o­nal­ly ar­chers al­so u­sed ar­rows to start a fi­re at a dis­tan­ce – oil-dren­ched cloth was tied to the front of the ar­row and lit af­ter which the ar­row was laun­ched (Ps 7:14, Is 50:11, Eph 6:16). Ac­cor­ding to Job 6:4 ar­chers al­so u­sed ar­rows with poi­so­ned tips.


Ot­her e­ar­ly pe­op­les who u­sed bows and ar­rows in­clu­ded the Greeks and Persians. The Per­si­an ar­mies re­lied very much u­pon their moun­ted ar­chers and tho­se on foot, who u­sed long­bows and car­ried their ar­rows in a qui­ver slung on the hip – a practi­ce dif­fe­rent from t­hat of the G­reek ar­chers, w­ho­se qui­vers we­re slung o­ver their backs. It is e­a­sy to i­ma­gi­ne t­hat the hip po­si­ti­on was mo­re ex­pe­di­ti­ous w­hen t­he­re was a need for ra­pid fi­re.

Dif­fe­rent usa­ges pre­vai­led a­mong ar­chers in dif­fe­rent parts of the Per­si­an Em­pi­re. So­me of the hill tri­bes t­hat the G­reek com­man­der Xe­nophon en­coun­te­red, gai­ned ex­tra po­wer or le­vera­ge by dra­wing the bow a­gainst their feet (pro­ba­bly by lying on their backs). The ar­rows of so­me of the tri­bal ar­chers we­re so long t­hat they could be gat­he­red and u­sed as ja­ve­lins by the Greeks. The C­re­tan ar­chers, who practi­sed high- tra­jec­to­ry shooting and ser­ved un­der Xe­nophon, al­so gat­he­red and re-u­sed the­se Per­si­an ar­rows. (Xe­nophon, who ca­me to un­der­stand the im­por­tan­ce of mo­bi­le troops ar­med with bows, slings and ja­ve­lins, ma­de ex­ten­si­ve use of C­re­tan mer­ce­na­ry ar­chers.) It was per­haps pos­si­ble, e­ven with the short C­re­tan bows, to draw the long Per­si­an ar­rows to the ear, if not the rig­ht shoul­der. G­reek ar­chers nor­mal­ly drew the bowstring on­ly to the chest.


Well-k­no­wn mer­ce­na­ry ar­chers, the Scythians, foug­ht al­ongs­i­de the Greeks, but so­me­ti­mes al­so on the Per­si­an si­de. They we­re re­crui­ted by the A­the­ni­an ty­rant Pi­sistra­tus in die mid-6th cen­tu­ry BC and ser­ved as mer­ce­na­ries al­ongs­i­de the A­the­ni­an foot sol­diers. They we­re al­so re­crui­ted as a po­li­ce for­ce within A­thens. At the Batt­le of Ma­ra­thon, t­he­re we­re no Scythians in the A­the­ni­an ar­my, but a con­tin­gent of A­si­a­tic Scythians, or “Sa­kae” foug­ht with the Per­si­an in­va­si­on for­ce. Du­ring the 5th cen­tu­ry BC the Persians al­so em­ploy­ed the Sa­kae to in­struct their troops in ar­chery techni­ques.

The Scythians ty­pi­cal­ly u­sed a po­wer­ful com­po­si­te bow. It con­sis­ted of a wooden co­re on­to which si­new and horn we­re bound. W­hen the bow was dra­wn the si­new stret­ched, whi­le the strips of horn we­re com­pres­sed. Both parts of the bow the­re­fo­re hel­ped to pro­pel the ar­row. The bow was fit­ted with horn end pie­ces in­to which the not­ches for the string we­re car­ved.

Ty­pi­cal al­so was the so­me­ti­mes highly de­co­ra­ted bow ca­se or gory­tos, which con­tai­ned a se­cond bow and a sup­ply of ar­rows. T­he­re is no e­vi­den­ce t­hat the Scythians u­sed a thumb ring. Rat­her, they em­ploy­ed the nor­mal Me­di­ter­ra­ne­an loo­se end t­hat is u­sed by mo­dern ar­chers. In this they dif­fe­red from the G­reek ar­chers who pin­ched the ar­row bet­ween the thumb and the fo­re­fin­ger – a we­ak grip t­hat me­ant t­hat Greeks we­re u­na­ble to draw the po­wer­ful bows of the Scythians.


The Parthians we­re al­so well k­no­wn as ar­chers. The ty­pi­cal Par­thi­an war­ri­or was a moun­ted ar­cher who wo­re no ar­mour. Re­lying on his mo­bi­li­ty, he would ri­de swift­ly to within ar­rows­hot of the e­ne­my and let fly a de­ad­ly shaft be­fo­re w­heeling his horse and retre­a­ting a­gain. The mo­dern ex­pres­si­on “a Par­thi­an shot” re­fers to this highly skil­ful ma­noeu­vre. The Parthians’ bows we­re strong and their ar­rows pe­ne­tra­ted very well, being a­ble to nail a shield to the arm t­hat sup­por­ted it, or a foot to the ground.


Whi­le the ar­cher in ancient Eu­ro­pe and A­sia de­ve­lo­ped po­wer­ful bows to pe­ne­tra­te ar­mour and to kill o­ver a long dis­tan­ce, the e­ar­ly in­ha­bi­tants of Sout­hern A­fri­ca took a dif­fe­rent path.

It is not k­no­wn w­hen the K­hoi-San first dis­co­ve­r­ed the use of poi­son and be­gan hunting with the bow and ar­row with poi­son tips. S­pe­ci­mens of ar­ro­w­he­ads found at se­ver­al s­to­ne-age si­tes in Sout­hern A­fri- ca con­firm t­hat the four-part com­po­si­te ar­row u­sed by die K­hoi-San was in use at le­ast 5 000 y­e­ars ago. The bow is lig­ht and is u­su­al­ly ma­de of a me­tre­long, green bran­dy bush branch or sap­ling a­bout two to three cen­ti­me­tres thick at die midd­le, ta­pe­ring e­qual­ly to­wards both ends and streng­the­ned with suit­a­bly pla­ced bin­dings of neck si­new. With a pull of less than ten ki­lo­grams, it is ca­pa­ble of sen­ding an ar­row a­bout 100 me­tres far, but the ef­fecti­ve ran­ge is on­ly a­bout 20 pa­ces or so. This li­mi­ta­ti­on has had a pro­found ef­fect on the de­ve­lop­ment of the bush­man’s hunting skills and in­deed on his w­ho­le way of li­fe.

The lig­ht K­hoi-San ar­row is not a cru­de in­stru­ment of bru­te for­ce, but is cun­ningly de­sig­ned to bring de­ath si­lent­ly and un­no­ti­ced. It is very lig­ht in weig­ht and is pro­pel­led by no gre­a­ter for­ce than is ne­ces­sa­ry. The hun­ter re­lies on sub­t­le ways of a­chie­ving his pur­po­se, which is not to kill out­rig­ht by the ex­tent of the wound it in­flicts, but to in­ject po­tent, slow-acting poi­son in­to the b­lood­stre­am of the victim.

The com­po­si­te con­structi­on of the ar­row is a practi­cal de­sign fe­a­tu­re. The ar­row is u­su­al­ly ma­de of a smooth 35cm length of thin reeds from bet­ween »

» two joints. The har­der ma­te­ri­al of the joint is cut a­way at one end and not­ched at the ot­her end to ta­ke the string. The unsha­ped end of the ar­ro­w­he­ad is fit­ted in­to the end of a short reed col­lar and glu­ed in po­si­ti­on with a­ca­cia gum. The main shaft and front part of the ar­row are u­ni­ted by a bo­ne links­haft, the one end of which is gum­med in­to the back of the reed col­lar. The ot­her end of the links­haft is in­ser­ted in­to the le­a­ding end of the main shaft, but is not fixed with gum. The re­a­son it is not gum­med is be­cau­se the shaft is me­ant to part from the poi­so­ned front-secti­on at this point if the woun­ded a­ni­mal should at­tempt to pluck the ar­row out with its teeth or try to dis­lod­ge it by rub­bing a­gainst a tree.

The reed col­lar and both ends of the main shaft are rein­for­ced with fi­ne bin­dings of gum­med si­new to pre­vent split­ting on im­pact and to pro­tect the nock a­gainst splin­te­ring un­der the pres­su­re of the bowstring. The full length of the i­ron shank is bound in the sa­me way, from be­hind the bro­ad­he­ad point to the reed col­lar, to gi­ve it a bet­ter ad­he­si­ve sur­fa­ce for the poi­son. Be­fo­re i­ron be­ca­me a­vai­la­ble to the K­hoi-San in com­pa­ra­ti­ve­ly re­cent ti­mes through tra­de with ot­her pe­op­le, the K­hoi-San tip­ped their ar­rows with tiny fla­kes of quartz set in ve­ge­ta­ble mas­tic, or car­ved ar­ro­w­he­ads ma­de of bo­ne and i­vo­ry, so­me­ti­mes from chips of s­to­ne and e­ven the points of por­cu­pi­ne quills.

The poi­son the K­hoi-San u­sed va­ried from one lo­ca­li­ty to the ot­her and ac­cor­ding to the pur­po­se for which it was in­ten­ded, but the most po­tent poi­son was pre­pa­red from the g­rubs of the Di­amphi­dia and Po­ly­cla­da beet­les t­hat feed on the le­a­ves of the Com­mip­ho­ra a­fri­ca­na and ma­ru­la trees.

W­hen the poi­son is in­jected in­to the b­lood­stre­am by an ar­row, it cau­ses con­vul­si­ons, pa­ra­ly­sis and de­ath. In ca­se of smal­ler an­te­lo­pe, de­ath may co­me within 24 hours, whi­le lar­ger a­ni­mals may ta­ke two to three days to succumb. But on­ce the poi­son is in the b­lood, its acti­on can neither be chec­ked nor re­ver­sed. T­he­re is no k­no­wn an­ti­do­te t­hat can sa­ve man or a­ni­mal.

The ar­rows we­re kept in qui­vers ma­de from either le­at­her or from the bark of the tree aloe – com­mon­ly cal­led ko­ker­boom or qui­ver tree.

So­ci­o­lo­gis­ts con­si­der t­hat the poi­son ar­row had a gre­at in­flu­en­ce on the K­hoi-San’s so­ci­al li­fe. Gre­at pains we­re ta­ken to sett­le an ar­gu­ment. Should an ar­row be shot du­ring a dis­agreement and a per­son be woun­ded, de­ath would fol­low cer­tain­ly but slo­w­ly, gi­ving the woun­ded man e­nough ti­me to seek re­tri­bu­ti­on. In the end both par­ties mig­ht die a slow and cer­tain de­ath.

Ar­chery ba­si­cal­ly be­ca­me ob­so­le­te in most parts of the wor­ld for hunting and mi­li­ta­ry use in the 1500s, af­ter the in­ven­ti­on of fi­re­arms. Ho­we­ver, the art cer­tain­ly did not die but li­ves on in sport and hunting to­day. The roy­al Toxophi­li­te So­cie­ty, for­med in 1781 in Eng­land, was the first or­ga­ni­sa­ti­on ai­med at pro­mo­ting ar­chery as a sport. In 1931 the In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Ar­chery Fe­de­ra­ti­on was foun­ded to con­duct in­ter­na­ti­o­nal ar­chery tou­r­na­ments.

To­day ar­chery is an O­lym­pic sport. In South A­fri­ca t­he­re are a­bout 20 000 bow hun­ters and se­ver­al mil­li­on in the U­ni­ted S­ta­tes.

The K­hoi-San use small bows and ar­rows dip­ped in poi­son. The­se bows are not po­wer­ful and c­lo­se ran­ge shooting is cal­led for.

S­cy­thi­an ar­cher.

A Had­za­be bush­man shows dif­fe­rent poi­so­ned ar­rows u­sed for hunting by the tri­be. P­ho­to: E­ric Rei­sen­ber­ger

The com­po­si­te con­structi­on of a K­hoi-San ar­row is a practi­cal de­sign fe­a­tu­re. Ar­rows are u­su­al­ly ma­de of smooth 35cm lengt­hs of thin reeds from bet­ween two joints. They cut a­way the har­der ma­te­ri­al of the joint at one end and notch the ot­her end to ta­ke the string. The ar­ro­w­he­ad’s shaft is fit­ted in­to the end of a short, reed col­lar and glu­ed in po­si­ti­on with a­ca­cia gum. T­hen the ar­row main shaft and the ar­row he­ad are u­ni­ted by a link shaft ma­de of bo­ne, the one end of which is gum­med in­to the back of the reed col­lar. The ot­her end of the link is in­ser­ted in­to the ar­row main shaft.

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