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Snake Indians - Testing Bows  by Alfred Jacob Miller 1858 – 1860 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tracking the Arrow Of Time: 70,000 Years Of Toxophily

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Sometime in deep-history the much-restricted punch and thump was weaponized and replaced with the club. Eventually, the requirement to injure life outside one’s reach birthed the throwing club and the spear, but eventually, toxophilites (bowmen) began using elastic materials to extend their aggression and the first archery weapons were created in the form of the bow and arrow.

Odysseus strings his bow and kills the suitors of Penelope by Thomas Degeorge (1812) Musée d'Art Roger Quilliot (VladoubidoOo/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Odysseus strings his bow and kills the suitors of Penelope by Thomas Degeorge (1812) Musée d'Art Roger Quilliot (VladoubidoOo/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

In history, when something was as popular as archery it became entrapped in myths, folklore and ballads, such as for example Robin Hood, to name perhaps the most famous. References to archery appear in global mythology, for example in Greek mythology, in the 21 book of the Odyssey Odysseus was eminently skilled in the ‘art of archery’ and both Eros and Cupid, the Greek and Roman gods of love, respectively, were master archers as was the god Apollo.

Chiron Instructing Achilles in the Bow by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (circa 1776) (Public Domain)

Similarly today, Hollywood presents a slate of fictional arrow-based heroes including Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Legolas in The Lord of the Rings and Hawkeye in Avengers. However, according to the 2008-paper titled ‘ Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa,’ it was in this rock shelter that archaeologists discovered the oldest arrowheads ever that have ever been found, dating back to approximately 72,000–60,000 years ago.

Oldest Arrow Flints In South Africa

Sibudu Cave is located in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and it was occupied from around 77,000 to 38,000 years ago. Some of the oldest modern human technologies have been found in the shelter including the first use of glue and bedding occurring around 77,000 years ago, the earliest needle dating to around 61,000 years old and a collection of spears dating back 400,000 years.  The bow and arrow is a unique development of the human species, according to Cambridge scientists Lucinda Backwell and Justin Bradfield who in 2018 published the research paper titled The antiquity of bow-and-arrow technology: evidence from Middle Stone Age layers at Sibudu Cave. After analyzing a bone arrowpoint from the Sibudu Cave rock shelter the pair of researchers concluded that the bow and arrow, in this context, signaled higher-level cognitive functioning occurring earlier than 60,000 BC.


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Snake Indians - Testing Bows  by Alfred Jacob Miller 1858 – 1860 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By: Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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