When you pick up a bow and shoot arrows at targets, you’re practicing a skill that goes back thousands of years into human history.
In fact, Fred Bear, a forefather of American bowhunting, said, “The history of the bow and arrow is the history of mankind.” Archery can be traced to about 64,000 years ago, when simple bows and arrows played a major role in our species’ survival. Archery equipment helped humans hunt more efficiently and become apex predators. The bow and arrow also functioned as deadly weapons of war. Today, however, archery is all about recreation, and it’s enjoyed by people worldwide, whether they bowhunt or shoot targets.
Let’s take a glimpse at archery’s fabled history.
The oldest known evidence of archery is a collection of 64,000-year-old stone points found in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave. The well-preserved arrowheads still hold traces of bone, blood and glue. Yes, ancient archers used glue to fasten arrowheads to arrow shafts, a technique still used today.
The researchers outlined their finding in “Antiquity,” an archaeology journal. In the report, they wrote, “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.”
10,000 Years Ago
A good example of those skills is a spectacular display in Valtorta Gorge, Spain, where intricate cave paintings show people hunting animals with archery gear. A bow from this period, the Holmegaard bow, was found preserved in a Denmark bog. Aged at 7,000 years, it’s the oldest complete bow that archeologist have recovered. Its design is so efficient that hobbyist bow-builders today often replicate it.
5,300 Years Ago
Roughly 5,300 years ago, a lone hunter was attacked and arrowed in the Italian Alps. His frozen, well-preserved body was found by a group of German alpinists in 1991.
Scientists named this ancient human “Otzi the Iceman,” and marveled at his archery equipment. His bow was made of yew, a wood preferred by English longbow archers and today’s traditional archers. Otzi also carried a copper ax, which he was using to build his bow. It appears Otzi was making this new bowhunting rig when he died. He had 12 arrow shafts, but only two complete arrows; and his bow was in an unfinished state of construction.
Mystery surrounds the circumstances of Otzi’s death, but it seems clear another person killed him. In 2001, an X-ray revealed a flint arrowhead lodged in the back of his shoulder. The flint arrowhead cut his subclavian artery, quickly killing him.
Genghis Khan was born in 1162 A.D. He later led history’s most successful army of archers. Kahn’s horseback-riding archers attacked in swift moves, blackening the sky with arrows, and then retreating before striking again. Khan’s army conquered more land than any other armed force in history. His Mongolian empire covered 12 million square miles, roughly the size of Africa.
Oct. 25, 1415 A.D.
In 1415 A.D., France and England were locked in the Hundred Years War, which raged from 1337 to 1453. On Oct. 24, 1415, the Battle of Agincourt pitted French crossbows against English longbows. The longbow had the advantage of distance, and England’s highly skilled warriors hit targets over 100 yards away. The longbow archers proved too much for the French, and the English won a decisive victory.
In summer 1911, Ishi – the last of the Yahi tribe – walked out of the Butte County wilderness in Northern California. The media dubbed him “the last wild Indian” because he lived a hunter-gather subsistence lifestyle.
The physician who attended Ishi, Saxton Pope, befriended him. Ishi taught Pope to make bows, arrows and arrowheads. Pope practiced archery and started bowhunting with this new knowledge. Pope became instrumental in reviving bowhunting in America.
“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn, is one of archery’s most beloved movies of all time. It inspired countless people to pick up the bow and arrow, much as modern movies like “The Hunger Games” recently helped spark an archery resurgence.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes features the tournament where Robin Hood split his opponent’s arrow to win the match. That feat will be forever known as a “Robin Hood.”
The greatest advance in archery technology, the compound bow, was invented in the 1960s by Holles Wilbur Allen Jr. Allen added pulleys and cables to the bow to reduce its holding weight while storing more energy in the limbs. His designs revolutionized the archery industry. His inventions also shot faster, more accurate arrows than was possible with recurves and longbows.
Holles patented his invention in December 1969 and sold many Allen compound bows during the 1970s. Meanwhile, Tom Jennings’ company became the first large-scale manufacturer of compound bows. Ever since, compound bows of many make and manufacture have dominated the shelves of archery stores across America.
And here we are, 64,000 years later, with millions of people worldwide enjoying archery’s modern amenities. Archery’s link connects us with our ancestors every time we draw a bow.
Luckily, we don’t need to carve a bow with stone tools or copper axes. We have access to commercially manufactured recurves, longbows and compound bows; and laser-straight arrows made of wood, aluminum or carbon.
Therefore, it’s easier than ever to get started in the sport, especially with help from archery shops and ranges in communities nationwide.