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Home > Books > Mason > North American Bows, Arrows and Quivers > Introduction
North American Bows, Arrows and Quivers
by Otis T. Mason, 1893.
Part 1 of 2

"If the canopy of Heaven were a bow, and the earth were the cord thereof; and if calamities were the arrows, and mankind the marks for those arrows; and if Almighty God, the tremendous and the glorious, were the unerring archer, to whom could the sons of Adam flee for protection? The sons of Adam must flee unto the Lord."—Timur's Institutes, p. XLVIII.

In no series of museum specimens is the natural history of human invention better exemplified than in the apparatus of war and the chase. The history of warfare especially involves the right understanding of two words-offense and defense. The perfecting of defensive apparatus has been stimulated by the perfecting of weapons of offense, and on the contrary the ingenuity of the human mind has been taxed to make the offensive implement of war more powerful than the defensive.[1] Protection of the body is secured by what is generally termed armor. The protection of the family, the tribe, the army corps, is achieved by fortification of some kind.

In the modern art of war this conflict of defense against offense reaches its climax in the built-up steel rifle-cannon and the nickel and steel Harveyized armor plating. One of the modern guns will send its shot quite through a plate 20 inches thick. Now the primitive form of this terrible projectile was the arrow, and of the steel plate the ancestor was the trifling hide and stick armor of savagery.

Offensive implements in all ages and stages of culture are for three purposes-to bruise, to slash, and to pierce the body of the victim.

Bruising weapons are found everywhere, but were highly developed in the Polynesian area, because there abundance of hard wood exists and little stone with conchoidal fracture for chipping.

Among the African savages, because they possess iron which may be worked from the ore, edge or slashing weapons have been especially elaborated.

Among the American aborigines, where obsidian, jasper in all its varieties, chert, quartz, and other siliceous stones abound, piercing weapons seem to have been the favorite class.

However, each of the chief types of savagery possesses in some form the three great classes of bruising, slashing, and piercing weapons. For instance, the Polynesians had the club, the spear, and the shark's-teeth sword. The Africans fought with knobsticks, assegais, bows and arrows, and edge weapons in great variety. The Americans, especially the Mexicans, developed a sword with obsidian edge and the tomahawk.

The further subdivision of these three classes of weapons is based upon their manipulation. Every weapon and every tool consists of two parts—the working part and the manual or operative part,—hat which wounds or kills and that by which it is held or worked. Indeed, the fact is sometimes overlooked that the manual or operative part of a tool or weapon has undergone greater changes in the course of history than the working part. The bow therefore must be studied quite as carefully as the arrow.

In the rudest form of tool or weapon a single piece of stone or wood serves both purposes, but even in this simple form one part tits the hand better and the other is more adapted to the work. A stone used for bruising generally has one end better fitted to the hand and the other shaped by nature to effect the purpose. The stick used as a spear, or a club, or a sword, even in savagery, has the differentiation of holding end and working end.

This study of the manual end of a weapon gives rise to the classification of Adrien de Mortillet into weapons held and used in the hand, weapons thrown from the hand, and weapons worked by some intermediary apparatus between the hand and the working part.

Ballistic weapons of America are bolas, throwing-sticks or sling-boards with their varied darts, slings and stones, blow-tubes and darts, and bows and arrows. Some tribes are said to throw the tomahawk with good effect. Each of these involves mechanical principles worthy of the most careful study.

In this paper attention will be confined to the types of bows, arrows, and quivers of the North American aborigines, with incidental references to similar forms found elsewhere. It is true that the tribes included within this area developed the greatest variety of forms of primitive bows and arrows. The built up bows of Asia, studied and described by Mr. Balfour,[2] are of a higher order of invention and need only be mentioned.

Mexican bows, arrows, and shields have been carefully described by Mr. Adolf Bandelier. The South American area has been little investigated, but the North American Indian archery affords an excellent opportunity for the consideration of all the forces and devices which entered into human inventions as motives.

The geographic distribution of materials for weapons and of game has given rise to an infinite variety of forms. The failure of certain kinds of trees in many places has put the bowyers to their wit's end in devising substitutes for producing the bow's elasticity. The exigencies of climate and the gloved hand modify the form of the arrow in some regions. The progress of culture, the demands of social customs, and skill of the manufacturer enter into the study of the bow and the arrow. In other words, in passing from the Mexican border northward to the limit of human habitation, one finds the rudest arrow and the rudest bow and the most elaborate arrow and bow ever seen among savages.

Again, in making this journey he will observe how quickly his passage between certain isotherms, forested regions, deserts, tallies with a sensitiveness of the bow or the arrow, which take on new forms at every degree of latitude or temperature.

Finally, if the student be observant, the arrow will write for him long chapters about the people, the fishes, birds, and beasts of the separate regions and their peculiar habits.

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