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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter II: Prehistoric Archery
Chapter II
Prehistoric Archery
By C.J. Longman
Part 1 of 2

THE question of how, when, and where the practice of archery first arose has been much debated, but has never been decided; nor is it probable that any of these three interesting points will ever be settled beyond doubt, though the researches of archaeologists have thrown much light on the subject, and may throw more in the future. That the bow was used at a very remote period is certain, and also that its use was spread over a great portion of the globe; though there are some regions Where no trace of it has yet been found. No doubt one of the first needs of primitive man was a weapon wherewith to kill the wild animals which formed his food His first idea would probably be to break off a bough of a tree, with which to knock them on the head, and he would soon find out that a more satisfactory way of dealing with the larger animals would be to use his stick as the umbrella is said to be used by experts in a street row namely, for poking rather than striking. When he had further arrived at the fact that if he contrived to sharpen one end of his stick a little it would penetrate further, he may be said to have already discovered two weapons which have played a considerable part in the world's history--viz the club and the spear. No doubt with these Weapons he was able to supply his wants for a considerable time; but he would by degrees discover that the smaller beasts became more wary, and refused to allow him to come too near them; and experience would soon teach him that it was not desirable in his own interests to approach the larger and more savage animals too closely. Naturally he took to throwing his spears from a distance, and he was then as well supplied with weapons of offence as many savage tribes are at this day. His heavy stick for striking, his light spear for throwing, and his heavier spear for thrusting, are, in fact, the knobkerry, the throwing assegai, and the stabbing assegai with which Chaka and his Zulus overran South Africa.

The next step was a long one, and, as we have seen, some tribes have not yet taken it. Primitive man became dissatisfied with the short distance to which he could throw his spears, and also at their failure to penetrate the thick hides of the larger animals, even when he had learnt to sharpen the points and harden them in the fire, and to improve them further by adding tips of bone or of stone. He was fully conscious of the advantage he would gain if he could send a spear twice the distance to wich he could throw it, but the problem seemed to him insoluble. In due time, however, the solution came, and in three totally distinct forms--viz. the throwing-stick, with its relatives the amentum and the sling, the blow-pipe or sumpitan, and, greatest of all, the bow. Whose was the inventive brain to which in some primeval forest the idea first occurred of utilising the elasticity of wood by attaching a cord to a stave we know not. Some inquirers believe that, like the planet Neptune, the bow had more than one discoverer, and even that it was invented independently in three or four different localities. Of this, however, there is no evidence; and just as we are ignorant of the very names of the brave men who lived before Agamemnon, or the archers who used the Cydonian bow before Teucer, so we shall never know anything of the men to whom is due one of the most momentous steps in the history of human progress--carent quia vate sacro

General Pitt Rivers[1] thinks that, in pushing his way through the forests primeval man would soon perceive the elastic properties of the underwood, and that the first step would be to tie his lance to a stem, fixing it in such a way that it commanded the path of some animal; at the proper moment he would release the spring, and the animal would be pierced. He continues:--

The spring-trap of the Malay peninsula described by Père Bourienne is a contrivance that might readily have suggested itself from the use of an elastic throwing-stick. When the spring is fastened down by a string or cord, it would soon be perceived that by attaching the end of the lance to the string instead of the stick it could be made to project the lance with great force and accuracy. The bow would thus be introduced.

There is no higher authority on primitive weapons than General Pitt Rivers, and we may accept this pedigree of the how as being at any rate possible.

It is impossible even to conjecture at what date this development took place. The oldest writings contain references to archery, and the oldest languages contain the names of the bow and the arrow. The use of the weapon is, therefore, pre-historic beyond all doubt. For the earliest evidence of its use we must turn to archeology, and the best archaeologists are careful to assign no exact dates to prehistoric remains. Few examples remain of the bow of prehistoric times, and none have been found dating from the paleolithic age. Nevertheless, in the numerous arrow-heads which are constantly being found we have evidence that the practice of archery was widely spread at a very early period.

Arrow-heads have been manufactured from various substances. It is a common practice among savage tribes today to insert a sharpened foreshaft of hard wood into a light reed, and no doubt this form of arrow is very ancient. Actual arrow-heads have been manufactured from many substances, notably bone, horn, stone, and, after the use of metals was discovered, of bronze, iron, and finally steel. Owing to the perishable nature of wood, few bows and arrows of this material have survived from prehistoric times. A certain number of bone and of bronze arrow-heads have come down to us especially from the Lake Dwellings of Switzerland,[2] where also a few have been found made of stag's horn. It is, however, to the arrow-heads of stone that we must mainly look for information about prehistoric archery.

Stones which have been obviously worked by man into more or less serviceable tools exist in great numbers over a large part of the globe. Many have been found embedded in strata which must have been deposited long ago, the oldest-known instruments of human manufacture being those which are now generally termed Palæolithic.[3] Palæolithic implements are obtained from the gravels and other alluvial beds deposited by rivers, and also in caves which were inhabited by man at a remote age. They are closely associated with the remains of many animals which have been long extinct, and of others which belong to a climate totally different from that which now prevails in the district in which these relics are found. Among those animals which are now extinct may be named the woolly-haired rhinoceros and the mammoth, bones of which are frequently discovered in Great Britain and throughout France in close connection with flints worked by man, as also are bones of the reindeer, an animal which is now confined to Arctic or sub-Arctic regions. The character of the implements from the gravels or river-drift is very similar to that of the implements found in the caves, and they lie side by side with the bones of the same species of animals. For these and other reasons it is believed by geologists that the period during which the men where living whose traces are found in the river-drift at any rate partly coincided with the period of the cavemen. Some of the implements from the caves are, however, more skilfully fashioned than those from the drift, and it is therefore probable that in some cases the cave deposits may be rather later. Experts have made various calculations as to the date at which the river-drift was deposited. Few, however, consider that it can have been much less than one hundred thousand years ago, and some believe that it must have been much more.

Fig. 1. Arrow-head
(From a palæolithic deposit at Solutré)

Although many of the implements from the river-drift in shape resemble arrow-heads, yet their size and Weight preclude the likelihood of their having been used as such. So far there is no evidence that the use of the bow was known to the river-drift men, but implements have been found in the caves which can hardly have been used for any other purpose than for the piles of arrows. Specimens (fig. 1) of this character have been obtained in various places; amongst others from a cavern at Laugerie Haute, in Dordogne, in Central France, and also at Solutré, in the department of Saône et Loire, in company with remains of the reindeer and the mammoth. The engraving of an arrow-head from Solutré is from a specimen lent to me by Sir John Evans. If these instruments are rightly assumed to he arrow-heads --and it seems hardly possible to doubt it-- they must be reckoned as the earliest known pieces of archery tackle, and the origin of the bow must be referred to a period Calculably remote. But though these arrow-heads --which were chipped from flint by the unknown savages who inhabited France at that distant period, when the mammoth and the reindeer were to be found there in countless thousands-- form our earliest direct evidence of the use of the bow, yet it is impossible to sale that it was to this race that the invention of archery is due. It is exceedingly probable that bows and arrows were used ages before the practice of making flint heads to the arrows arose, and it is even possible that the cave-dwellers of the reindeer period are nearer to us in point of time than they were to the first archers.

In passing from the age of palæolithic man to what is known as the neolithic age we at once tread on surer ground. The neolithic age is also called by some archaeologists the age of polished stone. Whereas the stone implements of the palæolithic age were formed by chipping, and were seldom, if ever, ground or polished, many of the neolithic weapons are carefully polished. Chipped and unground implements are, of course, frequently found near tile surface, and, indeed, are manufactured at the present time; but Tylor says that ' we have no historical knowledge of any tribe who have used stone instruments, and have not been in the habit of grinding or polishing some of them.' [4] The neolithic age, then, cannot be said to be yet concluded in some parts of the world, and its commencement must be put far beyond the dawn of history. Yet even the earliest of the neolithic men, amongst whom were the inhabitants of the Lake Dwellings of Switzerland, seem modern in comparison with the latest of the cave-dwellers. Between the two is a vast hiatus.[5] The mammoth, the rein-deer, the cave lion, even Milan himself, disappeared from Central Europe, and a period intervened when animal life seems to have been extinguished in this portion of the globe. Then came neolithic man, with his bows and arrows, with domestic animals, with a knowledge of agriculture and of pottery to inhabit what had become the temperate regions of Western Europe. Abundant evidence exists that this race of men were archers. Few bows, indeed, have survived, but incalculable numbers of stolle arrow heads have been found,

Bow from Robenhausen Bow from Robenhausen Bow from Robenhausen
Fig. 2, 3, 4: Bows from Robenhausen
Click for a larger image

some few still inserted in the shaft. Some bows even have come down to us. M. de Mortillet mentions one which was found in a turf palafitte near Robenhausen, in Switzerland, which he dates from the age of polished stone; and the Marquis de Nadaillac[6] says that another is known coming from Lutz, also in Switzerland. I have in my own possession a bow Which was found deep down in the peat near Cambridge in 1885. It is impossible to fix a date to this bow, but it may be regarded as probably prehistoric. It is made of yew, and is a single stave 4ft. 11 in. long. A very small portion, probably an inch or less, is broken off at the upper end. At the lower end it is complete, the shoulders where the string was fixed being perfect. It is a weak weapon, which could only have been effective at short range, and is made from all indifferent piece Of yew, full of pins, or places where lateral twigs had to be trimmed off. These pins are well-known sources of danger to the life of a bows and a modern bowyer will choose a piece of wood, if he can get it, in which such blemishes do not occur. Wood that is perfectly clean ill this respect is, however, difficult to obtain, especially in English yew, and for this reason, amongst others, staves for the better class of bow have been imported from the Continent from the Middle Ages to the present day. One often, however, has to put up with one or more pins in a bow, and the bowyer strengthens the places by what is called ' raising ' the pins--that is to say, by leaving more wood round them than on the rest of the bow, and so raising bumps instead of cutting them off flush. A reference to fig. 7 will show that the man who made this bow was acquainted with this little piece of bowyer's craft.

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