Friday, September 13, 2013

Archaeology | Bow and arrow forever changed ancient cultures

The invention of the bow and arrow allowed users to shoot projectiles more rapidly and more accurately than with the traditional spear.

A new theory argues that this innovation resulted in more than just a technological revolution. It also had profound social consequences wherever the bow was adopted.

Stony Brook University biologists Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza developed the “social-coercion hypothesis” as an explanation for the rise of social complexity. They recently outlined their work in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology.

According to this idea, the introduction of a more-effective weapon system gave social groups a safer, more-reliable way to coerce uncooperative individuals to support the efforts of the group or to seek another one somewhere else.

This, in turn, allowed social groups to grow larger without the previously inevitable splintering into rival groups based largely on family loyalties. In violent conflicts, members of larger groups would have an evolutionary advantage over members of smaller groups. As a result, larger groups requiring increased levels of social complexity would proliferate.

It’s an intriguing idea, but is there evidence to support it?

John Blitz, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama, and Erik Porth, a grad student there, reviewed the data for eastern North America and say there is. They report the results of their study in the same issue of Evolutionary Anthropology.

According to Blitz and Porth, the bow and arrow were adopted in the Ohio Valley between A.D. 300 and 400. During this period, large spear points were replaced by smaller arrowheads. The result, however, was not an increase in social complexity. Far from it.

This period marks the collapse of the Hopewell culture, a far-flung network of cooperating communities that gathered periodically at monumental ceremonial centers, such as Newark’s sprawling earthworks.

You might think that means the social-coercion theory bites the dust.

Not so, according to Blitz and Porth. They argue that the introduction of the bow increased the efficiency of individual hunters so much that they no longer needed to cooperate in large-scale game drives. With one big reason for large gatherings eliminated, the precocious social complexity of the Hopewell disintegrated.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the wake of the Hopewell collapse, the population actually increased, and villages began to pop up across the Ohio valley. In time, these communities began to compete with one another.

Around A.D. 600, a more-sophisticated arrowhead appeared in eastern North America and rapidly replaced the older version. This was followed by an even bigger boost in population, which increasingly became concentrated in large villages.

These villages often were surrounded by a palisade or a ditch, and bodies buried at these sites frequently have arrowheads lodged in their bones, indicating that the bow and arrow were used as military weapons.

Blitz and Porth conclude that the new social roles that arose out of the need for community defense laid the foundations for the rise of social complexity culminating in the elite chiefs who ruled the Mississippian metropolises, such as Cahokia in Illinois.

These data suggest that Bingham and Souza are right about the far-reaching effects such an important technological innovation could have on all aspects of a society.

Lepper, Bradley T. 2013. “Archaeology | Bow and arrow forever changed ancient cultures”. Columbus Dispatch. Posted: August 4, 2013. Available online:

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