The Complete Guide On The History of Archery

Here you will discover a detailed breakdown of the history of archery. From when archery started to where the oldest bow was discovered to how archery shaped civilizations throughout history.

Below you have the main takeaways from the entire article.

Archery originated in Africa around 60.000 years ago and from there it spread across the world. In the beginning, archery was used for hunting, later evolving to be used by armies waging war. On the battlefield, Archery helped shape civilization all the way from Ancient history up until it was replaced by gunpowder weapons.

Let us look now at archery during different times in human history. Let us begin with how old archery really is.

Where Did Archery Originate?

Archery originated in Africa. The earliest sign of archery was found in the Sibudu Cave in South Africa, where they discovered arrowheads which were dated to be from around 60.000 years ago.

Sibudu Cave Arrowhead

I find this to be mind-blowing. Archery is that old!

Another historical find was discovered in Sri Lanka of all places, with another set of arrowheads in the Fa Hien Cave being discovered. And with the carbon dating were dated to be from around 48.000 years ago.

The archeological evidence points to archery originating in Africa then spreading from there towards the Middle East and from there to Asia and Europe.

It is most likely that archery spread from Asia to the Americas through the temporary Alaskan land bridge that allowed the people to travel by land from Asia to North America and then southwards.

The Main Purpose of Archery in the Begining

At first, archery was mainly used for hunting by the people of the stone age. Based on the archeological findings they started using arrowheads made from bone and stone. You can see here what kind of rocks they used to make their arrowheads.

Depiction of a caveman using a bow and arrow

While there are some cave paintings that seem to show human conflict using a bow it is generally accepted that archery use in warfare started much later.

Archery Use in Early Warfare

The first armies which used bows appeared in north Africa and the Middle East.

It should come as no surprise since heavy agricultural development in the region enabled cities to prosper and for kingdoms to maintain large armies.

The finest army of its era was the Egyptian one.

Egyptians were very fond of the bow. They primarily used it with chariots. Chariots were horse-drawn “baskets” with 2-3 people on them.

Egyptian Chariot in Action

One of them was the rider, who steered the chariot the other one was the archer. The archer would fire at the enemy column and with the help of the rider, would stay away from the enemy.

Some kingdoms used a third person who used a spear to stab any enemy soldier nearby. 

Now imagine hundreds of these chariots racing towards you each one able to fire a hundred arrows and you see the damage these chariots could cause.

The most famous chariot battle was the battle of Kadesh. It is estimated up to 5000 chariots were involved in the battle.

Now, that’s a lot of fired arrows.

The Egyptians also used foot archers. Mainly from the Kingdom of Nubia and they had a reputation among the Egyptians as the finest archers around.

According to available sources, they called Nubia Ta-Seti or the “land of the bow”.

Most kingdoms and empires in the Middle East used foot archers instead of chariots. Foot archers were cheaper to maintain and supply than chariots.

Chariots were incredibly expensive to make and breeding horses for war even more so.

So, after the decline of the Egyptian and Hetit empires, most armies started relying on foot archers.

They were the second deadliest archers on the battlefield. So which ones were the first?

You are about to find out.

Eastern vs Western Archers

Foot Archer vs Horse Archer

The entire world (with the exception of Australia) used bows and arrows. But unlike the peoples in Europe like the Romans and Greeks from antiquity, the eastern peoples used a far more deadly form of archers.

Here is what I mean.

In Europe, archers were used in large formations to direct as many arrows as possible towards enemy lines.

Imagine two or three thousand archers firing 6 to 10 arrows a minute. Then you can fully get to appreciate the carnage archers could cause on the battlefield.

That’s was the tactic of western armies. Line up your archers and have them fire as much as possible as fast as possible.

Example. At the battle of Crecy, the 8000 English longbowmen fired 80.000 arrows by the time the French soldiers closed the distance.

That’s insane. The number of arrows in the air that day must have been frightening.

The whole archery tactic of western kingdoms had a few issues. Chiefly, archers were exposed for arrows from the opposing side. And of course to cavalry charges from the enemy.

Now the eastern empires and kingdoms were aware of that.

So, they invented the most dangerous archer in the history of warfare.

The Mounted Archer

The mounted archer

They were fast, accurate enough, and very hard to hit or to catch.

In the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C, the Parthians used horse archers to decimate an entire Roman army.

The Romans were surrounded in the middle of nowhere and then Parthians fired volley after volley of arrows from horse archers.

And as soon as the Romans tried storming the mounted archers they simply ran away and proceeded to fire more arrows at them.

And when the horse archers ran out of arrows a camel carrying quivers filled with arrows resupplied them.

They were an incredible machine of war.

One of the big differences between mounted vs horse archers was in the way they drew their bows. Horse archers used the “Thumb draw” while foot archers used the “Mediterranean draw”.

Both have their merits so you can click here for a detailed breakdown of the thumb draw.

So Why Were The Eastern Peoples Most Skilled in Horse Archery?

It all has to do with terrain. The nomadic tribes of Asia lived in the vast expanses of the step. With nothing but grass all around them.

They relied on horses for pretty much everything. And given the vast abundance of grass all around, feeding a large number of horses was not a problem.

Horses were abundant, and feeding them was cheap. And they used archery for hunting already and horses to travel across vast distances.

If you combine all these factors, you get the reason why they were an unstoppable killing machine.

So while the western kingdom relied on foot archers in mass because they were cheaper than building chariots or training horse archers.

Eastern nomadic people used horse archery since it was cheap to feed their horses and they needed the mobility of the horse to travel across vast distances.

This enabled the Huns to travel from the steps of modern-day Kazakhstan all the way to the borders of the Roman empire in the 5th century.

Their skill in horse archery decimated army after army and forced both the Western and Eastern Roman empires to pay enormous tribute to the most barbaric Hunnic chieftain ever.

Atilla the Hun.

The Mongol Horse Archers

After the Huns, came the Mongols. Ghenghis Khan as he is known in the western world, united the Mongol Tribes and wreaked havoc in the Chinese Kingdoms, then destroyed the Persian Sultanate and everyone he came in contact with.

The Mongols did employ the siege weapons they had their prisoners build them. But even so.

Their armies relied on horse archers to destroy any enemy armies. The Mongol horse archers used the infamous Mongol Bow, which for its small size packed one hell of a punch.

Their favorite tactic was the “feigned retreat”. Their cavalry would engage the enemy then pretend to retreat to fool the enemy into following them.

Amazingly that worked a lot of the time. And while the enemy chased them they were shot by horse archers with arrow after arrow.

That enabled them to build an empire that stretched from China to modern-day Hungary. To see the tactics the Mongols used, check out this article on why horse archers were effective on the battlefield.

Archery shaped the world. But not for long.

The Decline of Archery

The use of archery on the battlefield declined starting in the late middle ages because of the introduction of gunpowder weapons.

So why did early rifle loading muskets replace the more accurate bow? The short story is.

It comes down to cost again.

While it is true that the English longbow was far more accurate and could be fired at longer distances it was expensive compared to putting a musket in a peasant’s hands and teaching him how to fire and reload.

Archers took time to train. It’s a long process to train an archer.

The medieval kingdoms knew that. That’s why some even mandated archery training for their citizens.

So when an archer died on the battlefield that was a tremendous loss of skill, you needed time to cultivate that skill again.

By contrast, a musket can be fired by any able-bodied man. With barely any training.

So instead of quality, they chose quantity.

So even though early muskets were messy, inaccurate, and caused so much smoke it was hard to see. If you put enough of them in tight formations they could cause enough damage to justify the drawbacks it had.

So the question is, why has archery declined?

Archery on the battlefield declined because gunpowder weapons, while less accurate at the time, were more cost-effective compared to training an archer.

The militaries of the world also quickly found that bullets can be far more deadly than arrows, go here for a detailed explanation of the difference between bullets and arrows.

The Comeback of Archery

Archery was practiced as a pastime even during its heyday. The aristocracy of the British regularly indulged in competitions where the archers had to dislodge a pigeon.

Don’t worry, the pigeon was made of wood.

After the advent of firearms on the battlefield and the decline of archery, several recreational clubs sprung up in Britain.

One of the oldest ones was the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers. They are the ones that ran the pigeon shooting contest. Their first event was recorded to have taken place in 1483.

For centuries, archery was regarded as a fringe sport enjoyed by the select few. That all changed in the late 18th century. Where there was a surge of interest in archery, again, among the nobility.

This fashionable revival lead to multiple archery societies being set up often times each having its own rules and practices.

At this point, there was no central body to standardize the sport and give it rules. But these archery societies had a positive effect on archery and helped it stay alive during the centuries.

Archery in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, archery slowly moved down the social hierarchy with other people, not just the nobility, participating in it.

The nobility did throw the most lavish tournaments through, they even had 21 gun salutes, music. From what was written about it it was a real show to behold.

While these archery societies had a great influence on archery as a sport, the colossal leap forward for the sport came in 1900.

Archery At The Olympics

Archery made its debut in the 1900 summer Olympics in Paris. Due to the relatively young nature of the sport very few countries actually participated in the first archery events in Paris.

But archery had a huge problem.

Remember those archery societies I mentioned that sprang up across several countries?

Well, those societies each had separate rules which meant every archery trained under different rules than they competed in.

That caused confusion.

So much so, after the 1920 games, archery did not make an appearance until 1972 in Munich.

After 1972 in Munich archery would never leave again. So what was the difference?

Archery as a sport began to be standardized across nations. This means an archer in Germany is trained under the same rules as an archer in Canada. This was made possible with the advent of governing bodies that made the sport into what it is today.

In Conclusion

Feel free to continue exploring the history of archery by checking out this article where we discuss specifically the History of Chinese Archery.

And if you wish you can explore a related topic on the history of Native American Archery and the ingenious way they made their bows powerful, you can do that by clicking here.

As always thank you for reading.

Take care.

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