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Home > Articles > The Journal of the Antropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland > On the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow > Discussion - Part
On the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow
Part 3 of 3

No one would have originated the idea of piecing together several bits of hard unbendable material, and giving them elasticity by means of sinews or hide, unless they had previously been acquainted with the use of the plain bow. It must either have been done through necessity or by way of improvement, and upon this depends the question whether it was introduced in a primitive or an advanced stage of the arts. If the composite bow has any material advantages over the plain bow, then there is no occasion to bring in necessity as the cause of its origin. It may have been intended to give increased initial velocity or greater range or momentum to the arrow; it may have been a means of producing equal power with a reduced length of bow thereby adapting it better to be used on horseback, and it may have been regarded in its day as a triumph of mechanical ingenuity, in which case the Western Esquimaux bow with its stout cord at the back, and the Eastern Esquimaux bow with its numerous strands of sinews bound on behind, the North West Coast bow with its adhesive backing, and the various descriptions of Asiatic bows which Mr. Balfour has introduced into his paper, may be degenerate copies of the more perfect weapon. Perhaps the observation of Sir Edward Belcher that the Esquimaux in their construction of this bow, appeared always to have the Tatar form in view, and the observed fact that the nearer the American tribes to the Asiatic continent, the closer their bow resembles the Tatar form, may be taken as an argument in favour of this view. But if, on the other hand, it can be shown that the composite bow, even in its most perfect form, never exceeded or equalled the plain bow in its performances, it is evident that no one would have taken the trouble to construct the more complicated bow with its numerous contributory processes, when they could have obtained a more powerful weapon by simply employing a bent stick. On this hypothesis it would be reasonable to regard necessity rather than improvement as the cause of its introduction, and to assume that it may probably have come into being lower down in the scale of civilization and at an earlier period in the history of the world's inventions, and the various forms now in use in different parts of the world may represent successive stages of improvement rather than downward steps in the decline of the art. In this, as in all the arts, the various stages, whether of improvement or decline, co-exist in different places at the same time. They are like geological formations cropping out on the surface: like different species of animals representing different stages of development occupying different areas at the same time; or like the dialects and families of languages co-existing and showing affinities for each other, yet not derived from one another, but from earlier and perhaps undiscoverable originals. But it is evident that the bow cannot be studied apart from its performances, and that the causes as well as the results of the variations will have to be taken into consideration, if we are ever to have an exhaustive treatise on the bow, similar to that which Sir Richard Burton has written for the sword.

My own contribution to the subject was nothing more than an introduction to the study of the bow contained within the limits of a descriptive catalogue, and included as part of a series of other developments which my museum was collected to throw light upon. The museum contained eighty-two specimens of bows, of which twenty-two were composite bows, and the number was somewhat increased before the collection was presented to the University. But the amount of illustration in my catalogue was limited by the South Kensington Authorities, by whom it was published, and was totally inadequate to display the collection properly. Mr. Balfour has gone into much greater detail, and although he has not, I think, extended the known area of distribution of the several varieties, he has contributed materially to a more thorough knowledge of their construction. It is also satisfactory to me to find that his researches have done nothing to discredit the views that I at first held, but have rather confirmed them, and I trust he will be encouraged to take up hereafter an original subject of his own, for nearly all the arts of life are capable of the same developmental treatment, and the field that is open for the curator of a museum of evolution, such as I have endeavoured to establish at Oxford, is almost unlimited. In a museum so designed and arranged, no halting place is possible: it must itself develop as the series of objects contained in it have developed; new series will have to be introduced, and old series must be extended, modified, and the superfluous objects tending to confuse the sequence of their development must be eliminated. Other museums will have to be established containing other series suitable to the localities in which they are situated, for no single museum can possibly contain specimens illustrating the continuous growth of all the arts and contrivances of mankind.