Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Origins of Archery in Africa

It is well understood that projectile weapons allow lethal killing power at a safe distance and their use is near universal among human groups. Before the firearm began it’s rise to prominence over the last 500 years the most popular projectile weapons systems were the atlatl (spearthrower/dart) and the bow and arrow.

Most researchers consider these as ‘‘true’’ projectile technologies, distinguishing them from thrown spears, throwing sticks and other hurled weapons. There is considerable archaeological consensus that projectile weapons were in use by the Late Palaeolithic at least 30,000 years ago. However, last year, anthropologist Marlize Lombard of South Africa’s University of Johannesburg and her colleagues, reported in the journal Antiquity, that arrows were dated to at least 64,000 years old, and were discovered not in Europe, but in South Africa. This was based on a single bloodstained quartz arrowhead recovered from the the Sibudu Cave site.

In the new Journal of Archaeological Science study, Lombard reports more arrowheads and more evidence to push back the age of the bow and arrow. This adds more weight to a bone point, that could have been an arrow tip that was also excavated from the same site and published in 2008 by Lucinda Backwell and colleagues from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The real importance of these finds is what it represents in terms of cognitive archaeology. The concepts of complex thought that are required and the methodology of thought may provide further clues into the minds of our distant ancestors and what prepared them for their spread across the globe.

“Although the existence of bow and arrow technology (more than 60,000 years ago) may have far-reaching consequences for hypotheses about human behavioural evolution and adaptation, it is by no means easy to establish,” Lombard says at the beginning of her study which looks in microscopic detail at 16 quartz blades.

Her study concludes that some of these hafted points might have been launched from bows. While “most attributes such as micro-residue distribution patterns and micro-wear will develop similarly on points used to tip spears, darts or arrows” and “explicit tests for distinctions between thrown spears and projected arrows have not yet been conducted” the researchers find “contextual support” for the use of these points on arrows: a broad range of animals were hunted, with an emphasis on taxa that prefer closed forested niches, including fast moving, terrestrial and arboreal animals which would be difficult to hunt with anything other than an bow and arrow.

Expanding further, this is also an argument for the use of traps, including snares with the associated comprehension for the use of cords and knots which would also have been adequate for the production of bows. The employment of snares would also demonstrate a practical understanding of the latent energy stored in bent branches, the main principle of bow construction.

Despite a body of literature focusing on the functionality of modern and stylistically distinct projectile points, comparatively little attention has been paid to quantifying the functionality of the early stages of projectile use. Previous work identified a simple ballistics measure, the Tip Cross-Sectional Area, as a way of determining if a given class of stone points could have served as effective projectile.

The new study adds an alternate measure, the Tip Cross-Sectional Perimeter, a more accurate proxy of the force needed to penetrate a target to a lethal depth. The current study discusses this measure and uses it to analyse a collection of measurements from African Middle Stone Age pointed stone artefacts. Several point types that were rejected in previous studies are statistically indistinguishable from ethnographic projectile points using this new measure.

The researchers wrote in their paper: “Hunting with a bow and arrow requires intricate multi-staged planning, material collection and tool preparation and implies a range of innovative social and communication skills.”

Dr Lombard explained that her ultimate aim was to answer the “big question“: When did we start to think in the same way that we do now?

Past Horizons. 2011. "The Origins of Archery in Africa". Past Horizons. Posted: July 4, 2011. Available online:

1 comment:

DHBoggs said...

Very interesting. I'm skeptical that the distinctions between small atlatl use particularly among juveniles is really distinguishable from use of the bow, but interesting nonetheless.