This article will cover the complete history of African Archery. You will see how old archery in Africa really is. And you will see how it developed from the stone age all the way to modern times. So, let’s begin with a short summary of the history of archery in Africa.
According to archaeological finds, archery has been present in Africa since at least 60.000 years ago. The early bows were not powerful and were used to hunt smaller animals with thin skin at smaller distances. Much later in history were bows used in warfare between tribes in southern parts of Africa and Empires in the Northern parts of Africa. The bows were mostly selfbows, made from any wood that was sufficiently bendable and the arrowheads were commonly made from bones of animals and later down the line by shaping stones and soft metals into points.
Now that we got this short summary, let’s proceed to the detailed history of African archery. Starting with the surprising fact about the age of archery.
Do you know how old Archery really is?
The Origins Of African Archery
The earliest signs of Archery in Africa have been found in the Sibudu cave.
The pointed arrowheads found there have been dated to be around 61.000 years old, as seen here. So, did you ever wonder where Archery was first invented?
According to the archaeological findings in the Sibudu cave archery originated in Africa. And is close to 61.000 years old. From the depths of Africa, archery spread out to Asia and Europe. But given that the oldest find was in Africa it is a given that Archery originated there.
Based on the findings we can see that the arrowheads used in those very early days of modern man were made from bone in most cases.
Though they weren’t able to determine from which animal the bone tip was made off, it is safe to assume it was made from a bone of a small mammal.
The Surprising Things Is! Arrow tips from South America were made in a similar way, you can see the resemblance in this article. Another tab will open and you can finish this article before going to the next one.
What Was Archery Used For In The Beginning?
Archery as a tool was primarily used for hunting. Small animals with thin skin could be targeted at a safe distance without exposing the hunter to any real danger. These hunting parties involving archery were usually done in groups, as seen in cave art depicting that very thing.
While the primary purpose of archery in Africa was always hunting, archery was later used for waging war as well. First among the individual tribes and later down the line, North-African Empires such as the Egyptian and the Carthaginian used archers to great effect. As you will see in a moment.
How Archery Was Used For Hunting In Africa?
Bow and arrows were used for hunting smaller thin-skinned animals. The reason was that the early bows, while capable of sending arrows at a distance simply lacked the penetrating power needed to penetrate animals with thick skin.
While there is no detailed cave art showing how the bow was used you can deduce from the modern hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa how the bow was fired thousands of years ago. An archer has a standard anchor point which aids in his accuracy, he uses a draw that resembles the standard Mediterranean draw while the arrows are held most often in his bow arm. Or in the case of the archer above, between his legs.
How Was Archery Used In War?
We can not discuss the role of archery in African conflicts without first mentioning the Egyptian kingdom.
The Egyptian Archer
It is with Egypt that archery in Africa got its first major advancement. It was Egypt that first started using the technology of composite bows on the African continent.
These bows were not simply made of wood. They were made of wood, animal horn, and animal sinew. This combination of materials made the bow much stronger and much smaller. So, after thousands of years of using large self-bows made of one block of wood, these composite bows represented a huge improvement in size and effective distances.
You can see the short 3:50 video below where the Egyptian composite bow is explained in detail.
The smaller composite bows were quickly adapted by the Egyptians and put on chariots. This created a mobile platform from which an archer could shoot at an enemy and quickly move away and avoid getting hit.
Now, the Egyptians were not the ones that invented the composite bow. They were the ones that quickly incorporated it and used it. Most famously against their neighbors such as the Hittite Empire.
The Nubian Archers
The second great archery power in Africa worthy of note is the Nubian Archers. They lived in modern-day Sudan. The Earliest written description of the Nubian Archers can be found in Herodotus’s book Histories Volume 7 ch. 69.
“The Ethiopians were wrapped in skins of leopards and lions, and carried bows made of palmwood strips, no less than four cubits long, and short arrows pointed not with iron but with a sharpened stone that they use to carve seals”Histories Volume 7 Ch. 69 by Herodotus
The description above is of the Nubian Archer. And while it is true they did use stone arrow tips, given archaeological findings they also used iron and ivory. The arrow shafts they used were made either from palm wood or reed.
Their bows were rather large with early bows measuring between 110 and 150 cm and later ones are reported to have been 1,5 to 2m in length (between 36 and 40 inches.). Given that the Nubian Archers mostly operated on foot, and not on chariots, they did not have to have smaller bows.
The surprising thing about the Nubian archers is that it is believed they rested their arrows on the right side of the bow because thumb protectors have been found in various archaeological sites.
To see a detailed explanation of the Nubian archers there is a good research paper here you can check out.
Or check out this youtube video 23:17 long on the Nubian Archer, where you can see more details.
Apart from the Nubians, the only Empire worthy of note that had great archery units was the Carthaginians. They did not really use Chariots like the Egyptians or the Nubians but rather focused on using foot archers.
How African Archery Almost Went Extinct
Well, as you might imagine, as the European colonizers expanded into Africa for trade and exploitation (via the slave trade) the locals discovered something really quickly.
Bow and arrow are not very helpful against trained musket men with canons. The colonizers quickly overran the Natives and set up colonies, where the locals worked for the settlers. This more “European” way of life, for the large part, did away with wars between the tribes. Thus a large reason for using the bow was no longer present.
Even when there was a war on the continent, gunpowder weapons were used. And as the population got more urbanized and less reliant on hunting there was even less need for widespread bow use since most people could eat without actually going out and hunting.
African archery was in a massive decline ever since the Europeans started moving into Africa. There was a small number of hunter-gatherer tribes that still relied on the old way of providing for themselves and refused to assimilate.
One of the most famous ones today is the Hadza tribe in Tanzania. There are only around 1300 left, but their way of living and hunting offers us a rare glimpse of how people from the stone age lived and hunted.
Modern-Day Archery In Africa
Today archery is only used for two things. For hunting (by hunter-gatherer tribes) and competition. Formal competitions in Target archery on the African continent are sanctioned by the Federation of African Archery.
Thank you for going on this journey with me from stone age archery in Africa to archery in modern times. Hopefully, you learned a thing or two.