ANCIENT WEAPON IN MODERN TIMES
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.
GREEKS AND PERSIANS
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.
IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
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.
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.