Bow and Arrow Technology and Culture

The bow and arrow is an ancient technology, and it takes great skill to make a bow. Discover what researchers gleaned from interviews with expert bow makers from the hunter-gatherer Hadza people.

I grew up with the bow and arrow. I was the youngest of three boys, and for whatever reason, we all took an interest in archery growing up on the farm.

I started with a very light, green fibreglass bow. I moved up to a recurve bow in high school.

My roommate in college was also into archery. When he bought a compound bow, he sold me his beautifully carved Shakespeare composite recurve bow. 

I Had That Bow for Many Years

I had that bow for many years, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, the laminated pieces came apart from all the strain they had endured from every draw of the bow. 

I replaced that bow with two Martin traditional bows. One is another composite recurve, and the other is a longbow. 

I treasure them both. Over the years, I’ve become a casual devotee of the meditative art of zen archery.

Making a Bow Isn’t Easy

Readers may have noticed that so far, I haven’t said anything about making bows. That’s not something I’ve ever attempted.

My brother, a gifted woodworker, made a few valiant efforts at creating a bow out of oak. Unfortunately, they all lacked power and prematurely broke in two.

Making a bow isn’t easy. It’s not merely a matter of bending a stick and tying a string to it. For that matter, making a bowstring isn’t all that simple either.

Hadza People of North-Central Tanzania

Yet, the bow and arrow date back to our hunter-gatherer days. They’re an ancient form of technology and an example of how human culture fosters technological advances in society.

The journal Current Biology published a study this week that looked into the art and science of making a bow. The researchers lived and worked among the Hadza people of north-central Tanzania in Africa.

The Hadza have a long and proud history of archery. Not all Hadza communities are true hunter-gatherers today. Still, just about every Hadza man owns a bow that he made himself.

Some of the World’s Best Bowyers

The proper name for a bow maker is a “bowyer,” and the Hadza are some of the world’s best bowyers. Every self-respecting Hadza boy learns to make a bow as a toddler.

One of the study’s authors is Brian Wood from UCLA and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He described the bow’s role in Hadza culture like this.

“Hadza bowyers construct powerful bows from local materials and use them to hunt a wide variety of prey. Over 95% of Hadza men possess a bow, and hunters use their bows to provide the majority of the meat in their diet and therefore, represent a vital aspect of the Hadza economy.”

Researchers talked to 64 of the Best Bowyers

Professor Wood went on to say, “Hadza men begin using bows at a very early age. Boys as young as 3 years old mimic the manufacturing behaviours of their elders and begin manufacturing their own bows. By early adulthood, they are highly proficient bowyers and hunters.”

Although it’s a universal skill, some Hadza bowyers are better at it than others. The researchers talked to 64 of the best bowyers living in a sample of five Hazda camps.

They ranged in age from 15 to 77 years old. The team asked them questions about what would happen if they were to change the bow’s design in various ways.

Trying to Find Out More About Causal Knowledge

The investigators were trying to find out more about something called “causal knowledge.” Causal knowledge is when a designer deliberately changes how they make a tool, knowing in advance the effect this change will have.

Causal knowledge is significant in understanding how human culture developed. There are two schools of thought on how technology advances within human communities.

One model is called the “cognitive niche hypothesis.” Its followers believe that improvements in technology happen quickly. 

Accumulating and Recombining Cultural Traditions

Someone invents something that works much better in a stroke of genius. It may be refined over one generation or so, but it’s a rapid and highly adaptable process.

Other experts are proponents of the “cultural niche hypothesis.” In this view, technical improvements happen by accumulating and recombining cultural traditions in a more trial and error approach.

Designers don’t fully understand the causal relationship between a design change and how the tool will perform in the cultural niche model. When they try something new, it’s more of a stab in the dark than a planned adjustment.

Were Their Modifications More Cognitive or Cultural?

These two hypotheses were behind all those questions the team asked the Hadza’s master bowyers. They were trying to find out how crucial causal knowledge was in their bow designs.Were their modifications more cognitive or cultural in origin?

They asked the bowyers questions like, “Will an increase in draw weight (strength of pull) result in the arrow travelling faster, slower or no change?” and “Will an increase in brace height — the distance from the bowstring to the inside of the bow — result in the arrow travelling faster, slower or no change?”

Team member Jacob Harris is an Arizona State University doctoral graduate. He explained the art of the bowyer like this.

Bowyers had Only Partial Causal Knowledge

“When making a bow, the bowyer confronts a series of complex trade-offs, and his design choices represent one possible solution out of a large number of possibilities. The Hadza bow represents an elegant solution to an exceptionally complex optimization problem. Their bows are extremely versatile, capable of killing a wide range of prey and functioning in a variety of environments.”

When the team reviewed the answers to their questions, they found that the Hadza bowyers had only partial causal knowledge of their bow designs. Many of the design decisions they made were based more on culture than they made the bow work better.

In other words, the master bowyers followed many steps in their processes merely because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” They don’t always know or even ask themselves why they craft their bows in a certain way.

No Bowyers who Learn More about Cause and effect

Older bowyers don’t seem to have much more causal knowledge about designs than younger ones. There also don’t seem to be any master bowyers who learn more about the cause and effect of design changes than other bowyers.

Robert Boyd is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins. He also took part in the study, and he added these conclusions.

“The evolution of complex technologies, such as the bow, can occur with only partial causal understanding and has significant implications for our understanding of the cultural evolution of technology. It suggests that the human proclivity to rely upon cumulative culture rather than individual expertise likely has deep evolutionary roots.”

Cultural Factors Drive Most of the Process

There’s an ongoing debate in many disciplines about whether individual genius or cultural development is more critical for human progress. Have we become the dominant species on our planet because of sudden, game-changing inventions by individuals or by a long intergenerational process of continuous improvement?

This study suggests that, while both forces are at work, cultural factors drive most of the process. Culture accumulates over time, and innovators, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, are “standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

The critical thing that sets humanity apart from other species is our development of culture. We’re all interwoven into a social fabric, and none of us can survive outside of the global human family.

“Holistic Understanding of Technological Evolution”

Often, the answer when there are two schools of thought is “why not both?” Cultural and cognitive factors both seem to play a role in how the Hadza make their remarkable bows.

Dr. Harris wrapped up the discussion with this observation. “A more holistic understanding of technological evolution is necessary, one that does not view these two competing models as mutually exclusive. In our study, we found evidence to suggest that a complete causal understanding is not necessary, but we also identified key aspects of Hadza projectile technology that were more likely to be associated with causal knowledge.”

The next steps for the team are to explore the cognitive and cultural drivers in more detail. They also want to determine whether Hadza bowyers learn more from hands-on experience, active teaching or watching adults.

 We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Researchers take aim at the evolution of traditional technologies
The role of causal knowledge in the evolution of traditional technology
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Female Hunter Remains Overturn Gender Misconceptions
Friendly People Ensured Human Survival


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