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The invention of the bow and arrow, which is still used in some regions, made hunting and warfare more efficient and effective from a distance. Its use also increased the social complexity of the civilizations that used it.

Development of the Bow and Arrow

The bow and arrow were invented in prehistoric times. Bone arrow points were discovered at Sibudu Cave in South Africa dating to 61,000 years ago though they may be as old as 71,000 years. The weapon became prominent between the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. Stone-tipped - obsidian - arrows found embedded in a human skeleton at the site of Nataruk in Kenya prove that such arrows were being used as a weapon at this time. It seems that bows and arrows were used on every inhabited continent except Australia following the last glacial period. The bow and arrow were the primary weapon from ancient times through the Middle Ages in Europe and the Mediterranean; they served as the main weapon in China, Japan, and the Eurasian steppes for far longer.

The so-called elm Holmegaard bows from Denmark, dating to 9000 BCE, are the oldest surviving bows in one piece. Modern high-performance bows are modeled after this design. Bow fragments of the Stellmoor bow were found in Germany and were dated by archaeological association to circa 8000 BCE, but were destroyed during World War II. Bows were used for hunting and warfare until about the 17th century when gunpowder was widely used. Still, some cultures continue to use them for warfare and hunting, as they do for caribou hunting in the Canadian Arctic. Additionally, the British revived the art of archery in the 18th century, forming the Toxophilite Society in London.

Evidence suggests that humans were able to undertake a series of steps to make just the arrowheads, let alone the wooden shaft and bow. The shaft of the arrow, as well as the bow itself, were initially made of wood flexible enough to bend and curve with pressure. Different cultures made bows differently and with various materials based on what was available. Some ancient Japanese bows were as long as 8 feet, and some were made of horn or whalebone. African bows were usually small; Eskimos used composite bows of wood and bone with sinew - a strong fibrous tissue from animals used to join pieces. A composite bow is made by a combination of materials, allowing each piece - or "limb" - to be composed of the most suitable material for the function. Asian cultures often used composite bows made of wood, horn, and sinew, which stored energy in tension. Now, bows are mostly made of laminated wood, fiberglass, metal, and carbon fiber.

An arrow consists of a shaft with an arrowhead at the tip and come in many different styles. Originally, wood was most commonly used to fashion the shaft of an arrow; it is also the cheapest material. Arrowheads have been made of shell, bone, stone, and metal. The arrowhead is typically attached to the shaft with cement, socketing, or both. Feathers are used to stabilize the arrow during flight. The string of the bow is often composed of more than one material, though the variation of materials used is vast. The English longbow from the Middle Ages typically had a string made of hemp or linen while Turkish and Arab bowstrings were of silk and mohair. Other materials that were used include Rattan, bamboo, vegetable fiber, and animal hide or sinew.

Modern-day bows usually conform to a standard and have more accuracy and power. Bows are still used for hunting, which is what they have been most effective for throughout history. As the quality of armor improved and the use of guns spread, the bow and arrow became rather ineffective. The practice of using a bow and arrow - archery - is an artful skill that takes time to master; it has become more a hobby today than a necessity for most civilizations. However, their use for hunting for food, and therefore, survival, is apparent. While not as efficient, the continued use of bows in some more remote areas and among tribes does have a lesser impact on the environment.

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Examples of the Effects of the Invention of the Bow and Arrow

  • Allowed ancient humans to hunt and procure sustenance more efficiently and safely - from a distance.

  • Created a new art/skill and sport - archery.

  • Led to the development of different types of bows and arrows, each with a different purpose.

  • Provided an advantage in warfare, allowing the archers to attack the enemy from afar.

  • Led to increased social complexity: combat and hunting became easier from a distance, populations grew, and hierarchies developed based on the need for protection.
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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