The Complete History Of Native American Archery

This article discusses Native American Archery. From the very beginning to the point where it was replaced by firearms. So strap yourself and let’s begin exploring Native American Archery from its very beginning.

Key Facts About Native American Archery:

  • Native American Archery was introduced into the continent somewhere between 30.000 B.C. and 16.000 B.C.
  • Almost every civilization in North and South America used a bow and arrow (except the Aztecs).
  • The design of the bows differed from tribe to tribe.
  • Archery was used by the Native Americans mostly for hunting and sometimes for waging war.

Or to put it into more words.

Archery was introduced into the American Continent by immigrants coming from Asia during the existence of the Bering Land Bridge (30.000 B.C. – 16.000 B.C.). Archery then spread from modern-day Alaska all the way to the Southern Tip of South America. Native Americans used archery for hunting wild animals, and occasionally for warfare.

This was a short overview. Now let’s go into more detail.

The Beginnings Of Native American Archery

Native American archery was introduced by immigrants coming from Asia on the land bridge that connected the two continents at the time.

Picture showing the migration across the Bering “land bridge”

There was archaeological evidence found in Shaanxi province (modern-day China) that proves the existence of Archery in the Neolithic period in China in 20.000 B.C. This proves that humans in Asia had access to early forms of a bow. Which they used for hunting wild animals.

So, as they were traveling from Asia to the Americas they brought that know-how with them. The issue with Siberia and Alaska is that they are scarce in resources. Thus early men had to adapt their bow-making process to fit the environment they were in.

Which led to a wonderful invention in bow-making technology, as you will see in a moment.

Now that you are finished with this short introduction, let’s continue by examining the bows and arrows of each region starting from the north and going down south.

The Native American Archery In Alaska

Remember the part where I mentioned Alaska had little resources for proper bow making? The freezing temperatures mean the wood isn’t always freely available and this problem gets worse further north you go. And imagine bending wood in freezing temperatures, yeah not easy.

Well, the natives found a way around that.

Sinew Backed Bows

Sinew-backed bows are bows that have animal sinew wrapped around the limbs and belly of the bow. The main purpose of the sinew is to add elasticity to the wood and increase the energy the bow can produce.

You might think this is genius, and you would be right.

Sinew backed bows

As you can see the sinew (usually deer sinew) is twisted and placed down the length of the bow to improve the elasticity and the energy the bow can produce.

Twisting animal sinew on the bow

This is how they twisted it.

In his book “A Study of the Eskimo Bows in the U.S. National Museum” written in 1884 John Murdoch notes that the length of Alaskan bows was from 43 inches to 55 inches. With each region using a different size bow depending on their needs.

The width of the belly was never more than 2 inches, while the northern tribes had a very narrow belly.

They had to use the wood they had available, so they used “spruce wood”. Which they reinforced with animal sinew. For bowstring, they also used animal sinew strands. This means, they separated the strands and then twisted them together to make a reliable and durable bowstring.

As arrowheads, they used animal bones, which in that climate was more common than stone. And they glued it with glue made from the fish bladder (like they did in Asia) or they wrapped it around the arrow shaft with animal sinew.

Now that we covered the northern Native American Archery, let’s travel down south.

Native American Archery In Modern Day U.S. and Canada

The Native Americans predominantly used self-bows. These were based on one piece of wood that was bent and sometimes reinforced with animal sinew to improve the elasticity of the bow and the power it could generate.

Anthropologists believe the bow was introduced in the great American plains around 500 B.C. to 600 B.C.

The main difference between the bows used by the Natives in the territory of the modern-day U.S. versus the ones used in Alaska is in their size. If we take a look at the “Sudbury” bow from 1660 A.D., which was 5 and a half feet tall we can assume the bows from the Natives were very large.

The wood used to make the bow and arrow shafts was ash, hickory, or osage orange. Arrowheads were made from stones such as flint or obsidian which were easily crafted into sharp shapes and then attached to the arrow shaft mostly with animal sinew.

A little later down the line as the European colonists settled they often traded iron arrowheads with the Natives which they then began using as well.

How arrowheads were atatched

When it came to fletchings, the Native Americans used hawk or turkey feathers. Three pieces of feather-covered the arrow shaft, providing stability to the arrow while in flight.

When it came to the bow, while the bow was for the most part made from one piece of wood, the Native Americans made extensive use of animal sinew to make the bowstring and to reinforce the bow.

The bowstring was made from buffalo tendons twisted together to make a durable bowstring. There are some indications a plant-based bowstring was used as well.

How strong were these Native American bows?

What Was The Draw Weight Of Native American Bows?

Native Americans used bows between 40lbs and 50lbs of draw weight. Their effective range was 60 to 70 yards.

So why such a small draw weight? The reason is that the bow was a piece of essential hunting equipment for the Native Americans. It was not used as much in warfare and even when it was it was against other Natives who did not wear metal armor.

Meaning, a 50lbs bow was good enough for the job of piercing buffalo skin at 20 to 30 yards. Which is all that they needed.

Did The Native Americans Have Composite Bows?

No, Native Americans did not have composite bows. They predominantly had bows that were made from one piece of wood which was then reinforced by animal sinew in some cases.

Comanche Horse Archery

The Comanche tribe got a fearsome reputation using their archery skills on a horse. They were introduced to horses by the Spaniards in the 17th century and they started using them for hunting and warfare.

They shot quickly from their horses using bows that were modified to be used from horseback. So, gone were the days of 5-foot bows but they were shortened considerably. So, a standard Comanche bow used on horseback was 3 to 3 and a half feet tall.

Comanche replica bow with iron arrowheads

This just goes to show, the Native Americans learned from the settlers and adapted to their surroundings to protect themselves and their home.

Southern American Archery

This portion is going to be rather short. We can bypass the Aztecs to an extent since their culture did not support the use of bows. But by and large, the southern cultures adopted a series of very large bows. Similar in size to the English Longbow.

You can see in the Amazon jungle when we discovered tribes that had no prior contact with any European settlers that they used very large six feet bows with arrows that can also be used as spears. Arrows could be thrown as spears or fired from a bow.

South-American native fishing with a large bow

This is an example of a Native American using a bow in modern-day Brasil. As you can see it’s very large with an enormous arrow. The issue here is that it’s a selfbow, meaning it’s made from one piece of wood and not reinforced by any degree of sinew like in the northern tribes.

Hence you need a large bow to produce a meaningful amount of force from the bow.

If you take a deep look at the picture you will also notice his right hand holding the bowstring in an unusual way. To see a more in-depth article on South American bows then click here.

How Native Americans Fired Their Bows

The Native Americans mostly used a thumb draw technique to draw and fire their bows.

Unlike the western style of Archery, the Native Americans did not use a set anchor point and often drew their bows to the chest.

The Native American Thumb Draw

You start by placing the arrow on the right side of the bow.

  1. You wrap your right thumb around the bowstring just below the arrow.
  2. Wrap your middle finger around the thumb.
  3. And lastly you use the first knuckle on your index to fix your arrow in place
  4. You draw the bowstring
  5. Release

You can see this in this short video (3:43) perfectly demonstrating this shooting technique in detail. Definitely check it out!

Video showing how to shoot a Native American bow

Several versions of the thumb draw were used throughout history. You can see Mongolian and Chinese archers still using them. Considering that the Native Americans migrated from there it is safe to say they brought that technique with them and added their unique spin to it.

The Decline of Native American Archery

Native American archery declined because settlers expanding westward forced the Tribes into reservations where they had no need to hunt. If you add to that the systematic extermination of Buffalos by the settlers these two factors helped immensely to eliminate the need for Archery in the Native American culture.

Within a century as American settlers expanded west the U.S. government often forcibly relocated the Tribes into reservations where they stopped hunting buffalos (which was one of the main uses for archery in their culture).

The settler migration westward in the 19th century also affected the Buffalos, decimating their numbers. Almost wiping them out.

The Massacre of Buffalos

You can see in the picture above one pathetic man standing next to a mountain of Buffalo sculls.

The settlers knew that these animals were one of the main sources of protein for the Natives and if they wiped the Buffalos in that territory the tribes would have little choice but to relocate.

So, relocations of the tribes by the U.S. government at the time and the decimation of buffalos numbers wiped away the need for the Natives to use Archery.

I know, it is a sad way to wrap up the article.

In Conclusion

The Native Americans brought bow-making technology from Asia during their migration eastward to the American continents.

As you can see their bow-making technology adapted to the environment to produce an effective bow capable of protecting their tribe and providing food for their families.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hopefully, you learned something

If you wish you can continue your journey through the history of Archery by checking out my article on the Roman Arcuballista by clicking here.

Also, feel free to continue exploring bows from other Native American tribes such as the Comanche people in this article.

Take care

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