Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Where does the bow and arrow come from?

  1. Jan 11, 2007 #1
    I was wondering about the evolution of ideas and realised that there seems to be no intermediate stages for that simplest of weapons the bow and arrow.

    If you have nothing similar to work from building a bow and arrow is quite a complex task.
    Does anyone have any thoughts of what were the intermediate stages between man with sticks and string to man with projectile weapon system.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 11, 2007 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

  4. Jan 11, 2007 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Well the indigenous folk in Australia did not develop bow and arrow, but rather used simpler weapons - the boomerang and spear. To improve the range of the spear, they develop a 'throw stick'.

    I imagine the boomerang came about because someone just happened to throw a stick and noticed how it behaved and then successively made improvements. Whether successive improvements were by one person or successive generations, I don't know.
  5. Jan 11, 2007 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    First, ropes, cords and strings were probably developed independently of any hunting concern.
    After all, there are lots of other uses for strings.

    That's my view, anyway.
  6. Jan 12, 2007 #5
    I still can't find a series of logical inventions that create a bow and arrow from other practicle weapons.

    If you have a hand axe and club then you make a flint axe. Axe heads flying off during use could give you the idea to use the axe handle to hurl a spear. So I can see a logical evolution of the spear thrower as a compound weapon.

    But a bow and arrow uses spears too short to throw and a stick and sinew arrangement that has to be complete before it will work.

    Being a rocket scientist I don't know the time lines, but it has just occurred to me that if the bow came after fire then it might be possible that the bow was developed for peaceful fire lighting purposes and then was turned into a weapon, but I'm not sure that all civilisations use bows for fire lighting. A recent programe I saw indicated that acient Britons used the abundent flint and iron pyrate nodules found on the beaches across most of southern England.
  7. Jan 12, 2007 #6
    Its a simple step from short-spear / throwing arrows. Dutch arrows etc. Increase the power and range by using a bow. The longbow (english Yew wood) was capable of penetrating plate armour at ~350m.
  8. Jan 12, 2007 #7
    So you are implying that somebody was successfully throwing short spears and one day decided to get some sinew and a bendy stick and put them together in a manner never seen before on the off chance that it would improve his throw by using a technique totally alien to him.

    That is slightly off the point, as there is a clear requirement drive and technology advancement between a simple bow and complex composite bow.

    Surely there must be some intermediate steps, or some parallel development. not a leap from throwing one handed from the shoulder to firing two handed from the body?
  9. Jan 13, 2007 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow_(weapon)#History So bows and arrows have been around a long time. I wonder if bows/arrows could be used to track migration patterns.

    Interesting that the Indians of N. America used bow and arrow, but was the development independent from the Eurasian peoples?

    http://www.centenaryarchers.gil.com.au/history.htm [Broken] - "The discovery of the first stone arrowheads in Africa tends to indicate that the bow and arrow were invented there, maybe as early as 50,000 BC."

    http://pages.britishlibrary.net/thirskbowmen/history.htm [Broken] - "From prehistoric times, the bow was a principal weapon of war and of the hunt throughout the world, except in Australia."

    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  10. Jan 13, 2007 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    With most inventions the inventor takes ideas seen from various areas of their life and stirs them all together to come up with the end result. Obviously whoever figured out the bow and arrow had seen a bow-like apparatus used elsewhere most likely as a non-weapon. Also, has anyone ever noticed how children are able to stick things together in unimaginable ways? They aren't trying to invent things, they are just playing around. Adults watch these things and may see something in their kids creation that makes total sense to them for some particular task but the kid sees nothing and would prefer to take it apart and make something else out of it. The bow and arrow evolved slowly like anything else does.
  11. Jan 15, 2007 #10
    The missing link?

    Here's a purely speculative scenario.

    You can make fire by spinning a stick against another piece of wood until it heats up. Spinning by hand is done by holding the stick between both palms and "rubbing" them back and forth. It works, but it can take a long time for the tip of the stick to get hot enough. Taking the time it takes is not a problem if you're a caveman since there's nothing to watch on TV.

    Now, if you have this daily chore and you have access to a rope, you will probably think about this eventually: roll the rope once around the stick and get two people to do a push-pull action. The stick will spin easily and heat up much faster. And now you have also invented family entertainment as well as tug-of-war so you can be sure the technology will be retained for generations.

    If you are trained in such high tech but find yourself alone, you will probably think of tying both ends of the rope to another branch with a little bit of tension in it. Now you can move this bow back and forth by yourself and light up you cigar (which is why you're alone in the first place).

    Since the bow is a handy fire tool, you will probably hold on to it. Who knows, it may find other uses...
  12. Jan 16, 2007 #11
    That was the only conclusion I could come up with (Post #5), but what came first the bow or fire? And what became of the British hitting things with rocks method, that I think must me much more efficient as it still the basis for lighters today.

    Unless of course it was lets say the French who used the Bows for fire lighting due to a lack of rocks to hit things with, and then imported them into Britain in exchange for cheap DVDs or something.

    I think I need an expert in ancient history to tell me when these things turn up in different timelines.
  13. Jan 16, 2007 #12
    Huh! Surely I must have read what you wrote ("it might be possible that the bow was developed for peaceful fire lighting purposes") but it failed to hit my conscious mind. I'm out of whack, you see. Sorry for my long repeat of your succinct description.

    Today something else comes to mind, which always makes my eyes water. One of the natural ways to use rope is to attach both ends to separate objects for various reasons. From this use, I don't think it's a big stroke of luck to notice how the tension can make objects "bounce" and cover some distance. PlayStation-deprived kids would likely discover the slingshot this way. The bow and arrow are a simple evolution from it. Using rope would lead to the bow and arrow quite naturally.
  14. Jan 16, 2007 #13
    I am surprised that some think there must have been some in-between steps. Occasionally there are people who just invent something totally new. I have no reason to believe that people in the past were less creative than us.
  15. Jan 16, 2007 #14
    If you see the same invention created independently by many different groups then you have to suspect some underlying path of discovery. It's not a must but it is a more likely sequence because incremental changes are more common than leaps of creativity. It doesn't preclude creative genius in at least some of these cases either.
  16. Jan 16, 2007 #15


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    When you see chimps using a piece of straw to extract their dinner from an ant hill, you can see that we're not the only mammals on the planet that are good at inventing tools nor are we the only problem solvers (which entails genius). There are in fact birds that have figured out this extraction method.
  17. Jan 17, 2007 #16
    I have the oppertunity of doing a mini anthropological study at the moment by having a 5 month old child to watch. You can observe how, seeing every object as a new item, he goes through a series of experimentation to see how best to pick it up, which way it best fits in his mouth. Everything he does he evolves from 1st principles until (In a few weeks or so) his capacity to link new objects with memories of similar objects becomes stronger.
    Give an educated adult a set of objects and they use their experience of complex constructions plus their desire to fulfuill a capability gap to create something new, but even then they work from a base of known connections and evolve the idea.
    Remove all prior knowledge and I believe they will be reduced to banging rocks together to see what happens.

    I challenge anyone to find me an example of an invention within recorded history where there were no in between steps.

    There have been some intuitive leaps but usually after a lot of banging transistors together to see what happens.
  18. Jan 17, 2007 #17
    So what is your definition of an "In between step"? How small is the step? What constitutes simple for one may be complicated for another. Why does a step have to be real? An imaginary step can still lead to a real conclusion, based on real principles.

    How about Leonardo's Drawings of a Helicopter. From his imagination, the proof is his drawings.
  19. Jan 17, 2007 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    How about string instruments (e.g. lyre, harp, . . .) and their development.

    What might be an intermediate step?

    How about - someone observed that bent sticks are springy. Someone wanted to stretch some sinew or perhaps thread or something like string. They pulled on the taught string and found it springy. Someone put a shaft in it - voilá. The problem with ancient history is that they didn't write things down.

    Perhaps archery spread with early migrations.
  20. Jan 17, 2007 #19
    Take his drawing on it's own and it may appear a single leap but look at his works in context and there are numerous sketches of birds and artificial wings and on the pages with the initial helicopter sketches (nothing like the classic sketch shown in most images) there are drawings of sycamore seeds.

    He is building on what he has observed in nature and well established constructional materials and techniques of the age.

    Leonardo did not wake up one morning and invent the helicopter he evolved the idea from prior knowledge and observation.

    Observe sycamore seed
    study angles and rotation
    hypothesise that process is reversible
    realise in available materials and techniques (Wood and Canvas)
    discover power to weight ratio problem

    Each step is small although the overall step is large.

    I saw an exhibition of his works in Venice a couple of years back and spent a lot of time studying his helicopter pages, so by chance your example I have already studied. In general Leonardo is a bad example as all his works show a great attention to detail and everything in nature is broken down to component parts to try and understand the small steps that make large changes.
  21. Jan 17, 2007 #20
    Yes but my point is, the steps don't have to be real.
  22. Jan 17, 2007 #21
    :rofl: Rather than Swords into Ploughshares it's Harps into Bows, and Trombones into cannons. A previously peacful but highly musical tribe suddenly went rogue and invented musical weapons. That appeals to my strange sense of humour although it's probably not what you meant.

    If I was in charge of making people I'd make sure they invented language and non-volatile bulk storage mediums before anything else. It would save so much time later on. I'm going to give the big man a good talking to when I see him, shoddy planning from a scientific point of view.
  23. Jan 17, 2007 #22
    The steps may not be real but they are easy to envisage based on available knowledge.
    If I was asked to build a low tech weapon and just had sticks, flint and sinew I may well come up with a bow and arrow even without any prior knowledge of such a system, but I would have my labs and salary to help me. Ancient man was living a subsistence life style so blue sky thinking I should imagine was a luxury he could ill afford.
  24. Jan 17, 2007 #23


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Ancient man still had experience to rely on. Even if you don't have that experience, you have the experience of others and the communication necessary to obtain that experience. Your lab and salary don't really mean anything without experience. Many times ancient man probably said to himself: "If only I could throw spears farther than I can." If he already had simple machines to do simple tasks for him he probably realized that it was possilbe to have a simple machine throw an arrow for him. While the thought of making a machine churned around in his head he probably saw something occur in nature that was similar and made the connection. It could have been something as simple as watching a tree branch get sprung back and released and flinging a berry. At that point it was a simple matter of making it portable. If he used levers he probably had a crude understanding of mechanical advantage. Contrary to what people think it is unlikely ancient mans though process was that much different than ours today. After all, ancient man figured out archery, and here we sit wondering how it was done. If we today are so damn much smarter then this thread should not have ever started.
  25. Jan 17, 2007 #24
    I would supect the spear and throwing stick combo
    plus the sling all are pre bow inventions
    and are the basic bits in somewhat different form

    use a mini spear with the ''string'' from a sling and a bigger stick...

    btw fire is way before bows
  26. Jan 17, 2007 #25


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    By George, I think Astronuc has hit on a probable beginning step toward the invention of the bow and arrow. Excellent deduction dude!
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook