Archery is a pleasant and relaxing sport. It has been practised forever, or so it seems. When did humans really start using bow and arrow? And how did all the different types of bows develop: recurve bow, flatbow, longbow (that’s what I use), self bow, or the composite bow?

Bow and arrow have been used by humans since at least the later Paleolithic period. Finds of arrowhead-like blades that date to about 60,000 BC have been made in South Africa, but it is unclear whether they were used as actually arrows, fired with a bow, or rather launched as spears or even used as knifes.

Depiction of a female archer from the Grotte des Fadets in France, ca. 14,000 BC


The first traces of archery appear in a depiction scraped into a limestone slab from the Grotte des Fadets in France, dating to approximately 14,000 BC. From approximatel the same period, if not even slightly older, are the remains of a bow made from pine wood found in Mannheim-Vogelsang in Germany. The second oldest bow was found in Holmegård swamp in Denmark. Analyses have revealed a date between 8,000 and 6,500 BC. Another, younger set of three bows (though frequently claimed to be the oldest bow) was found at the site of La Draga near Banyoles in Spain, dating between 5,400 and 5,200 BC. The latter ones are made of yew wood, like most of the younger European bows. The oldest actual arrows found so far come from the Stellmoor near Ahrensburg in Northern Germany, dating to 10,000-9,000 BC. Not only the flint arrowheads were found, even the shafts made from pine wood were preserved in the bog.

arrows from Stellmoor (after Rust 1943)
Arrows with pine shafts from the Stellmoor in Northern Germany, ca. 10,000 – 9,000 BC
Holmegaard 1
Bow from Holmegård, Denmark, between 8,000 and 6,500 BC


Probably of similar age, late Mesolithic, that is 7th or 6th millennium BC, is the oldest known depiction of combat from the Cueva del Roure near Morella la Vella, in the Spanish region of Valencia. Slightly younger, probably Early Neolithic, is the battle scene with archers from Les Dogue in the same region.

battle between archers, Cueva del Roure, Morella la Vella, Castellón
Depiction of a fight between archers, from the Cueva del Roure near Morella la Vella, Spain, 7th or 6th millennium BC


The oldest example of a longbow was found in the possession of Ötzi, the Iceman mummy of the Ötztal alps who lived some time between 3,400 and 3,100 BC. This type of bow, usually made from yew wood, was the most common bow used in Medieval warfare.

Stele of Narâm-Sîn, king of Akkad, celebrating his victory against the Lullubi from Zagros. Limestone, c. 2250 BCE. Brought from Sippar to Susa among other spoils of war in the 12th ce
Detail from Naram Sin’s Victory Stele, late 3rd millennium BC

It is frequently claimed that the short recurve bow that Naram Sin of Akkad (late 3rd millennium BC) is holding on his famous victory stele – which is now exhibited in the Louvre in Paris – is actually a composite bow. Evidence for the composite bow appears almost one millennium later, during the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550-1069 BC), to where they were introduced from the Middle East. The composite bow seems to have originated even further East, in Central Asia. It is this type of bow that was used by the riders of the Asian steps, famous amongst other for the Parthian shot. The Parthian shot requires a horseman to turn around in full gallop and shooting at the enemy while having to steer the horse merely with the legs (without stirrups, that is).

Parthischer schuss
Parthian shot, from an Ottoman manuscript


Ancient Greeks had an ambivalent relationship to bows and arrows, as they were seen as an unhonorable weapon, certainly less honorable than the single combat between individuals. Nevertheless, important deities were depicted with a bow, as Artemis, Apollo and Eros. Hercules’ archery skills are praised, as is the strength and precision of Odysseus’ mastery of the bow.

Niobid Crater Artemis
The goddess Artemis, from the Niobid crater, around 450 BC


The Roman army employed mainly archers from conquered parts of their empire, as from Syria, Crete or Gaulle. Only by the late empire, under Emperor Constantin and his sons, archers constituted a regular part of the Roman army.

Arab archery uses composite bows drawn by the thumb, like Central Asian bows. The Topkapı Palace in Istanbul exhibits a bamboo bow ascribed to the prophet Muhammad. Several treatises and manuals of Arab archery were written in the 14th century.

Bow ascribed to Muhammad, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul


Professional archers were the backbone of Medieval warfare. Yeomen were required by law to pratice regularly. They did have to practice regularly, indeed, and from young age, to be able to draw bows with a draw weight of 150 lb or more (my bow has 30 lb…) and launch up to twelve arrows per minute. Inside the wreck of the Tudor warship HMS Mary Rose, which sank in a battle in 1545, 137 longbows were found, with an average length of two metres and a draw weight of up to 185 lb! Contemporary accounts describe professional archers as being of a crooked appearance, I wonder why that may be…

Geoffrey luttrell psalter 1325 longbowmen
Longbowmen from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1335


Nevertheless, during the 16th century bow and arrow were slowly replaced by the crossbow, and then, later, by firearms. Although initially of less precision than bow and arrow, they required less training which made their use eventually cheaper or, to be precise, made the soldiers who used them more disposable.

Since then, archery is merely recreational in Europe, and who wouldn’t prefer that over warfare. Unfortunately war still exists and has fiercer weapons than ever, but that is a different story.


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