History of Archery
64,000 years in the making.
Archery has shaped human history, estimated to have first developed over 60,000 years ago it has allowed us to feed and clothe ourselves, as well as fend off invading forces. Ingrained into culture’s around the world, many of our folk heroes and legends contain tales of skilled archers doing magnificent things.
Below we have detailed some key milestones in the history of archery, alongside compiled lists of famous mythological and historical archers.
The first evidence of humans participating in archery, whether for hunting or warfare dates back 64,000 years. Arrowheads discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa, were shown to have traces of blood and glue on them.
Discovery of these ancient tools has led scientists to push back the date they originally believed bow and arrow technology to arise by 20,000 years. Not only that, but it shows social development beyond what was expected of the time; with bow and arrow technology requiring advanced cognitive abilities, social planning, and communicative skills.
Despite this revelation, it is understood that archery didn’t become commonplace until the end of the Upper Palaeolithic period, roughly 10,000 years ago. During the 1940s in Holmegard, Denmark, the earliest surviving bows were found, dating back 8,000 years.
European Weapons of War
Europeans, but particularly the English and Welsh, redefined the use of bow and arrow for warfare during the Hundred Years War. With the invention of the English Longbow, made of Yew, the English became a formidable military force between 1250-1450 AD.
Introduction of the Yew longbow allowed England to have many successes in battle, including the battles of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415).
Kings throughout England’s history would mandate by law that male subjects of age would be required to practice use of longbow during their free time; even going so far as to outlaw other activities and sporting endeavors.
Henry VIII was a well-known toxophilite (lover of archery) and the most significant archaeological find connected to English Longbows was aboard the sunken Mary Rose. The Mary Rose was a warship that had been sunk in 1545 but was rediscovered during the early 1970s; aboard were 137 Longbows, alongside 3500 arrows and other artifacts.
Longbows would eventually be phased out over time with the introduction of firearms, eventually only being used for hunting and recreational purposes.
Archery in the East
Europe isn’t the only region famed for its archers, bow and arrow technology was advancing worldwide with each culture making their own significant developments.
Archery in Ancient Egypt
History of Archery in Ancient Egypt dates back 5,000 years and was utilized in both hunting and warfare. Typically, bows of this period were made from antelope horns with a wooden handle section.
Eventually, these horn bows would be phased out in favor of recurve bows made of wood, although animal parts such as sinew for bowstrings were still used until an alternative plant material was found.
During 2500BC – 2150BC a more simplified bow (self-bow) came into fashion and were similar to the English Longbow that would be developed centuries later. The most likely reason for the shift to simpler bows is the cost of construction and manufacturing time.
During battle, Ancient Egyptians favored mounted archery attacks, with archers riding chariots into battles for blitzkrieg style engagements. Typically, mounted archers would use a newly developed compound bow, requiring two men to draw.
Archers on foot would continue to use Self-Bow’s until the end of the New Kingdom.
Archery in Japan
Kyujutsu (the art of archery) and the modern Kyudo (way of the bow) can trace their roots back roughly 2,500 years with the first images depicting Japanese archers coming from the Yayoi period; the first written description can be found in the Chinese document Weishu dating back to 297 AD.
In Weishu it details Japanese archers using ‘’a wooden bow that is short from the bottom and long from the top’’, quite clearly describing a Yumi; the traditional bow of Japan.
Heki Danjo Masatsugu founded Heki Ryu, and was a major player in the standardization of Kyujutsu, developing practices which still survive to this day. By the end of the 16th century, the Yumi was considered to be virtually perfect, with modern bows remaining relatively unchanged for the last 400 years.
It was also during the 16th century that the practice of Kyujutsu started to decline, due to the growing popularity of muskets in warfare.
In modern times Kyudo has all but replaced Kyujutsu, and is considered a practice of spirituality through archery, rather than as an instrument of war.
Archery in China
Archery has played an important role in the history and development of China and was even considered one of the Six Noble Arts during the Zhou dynasty alongside:
Archery was considered a virtue for Chinese emperors, and even Confucius himself was an archery teacher. Archers throughout Chinese history would often employ the use of a bow and arrow for both hunting and warfare, with many dynasties placing an emphasis on mounted archery.
Like many nations renowned for their archery, the practice began to decline during the end of the 16th century; after the introduction of firearms from the west. However, since 1998 Ju Yuan Hao has been making traditional Chinese bows, and was the only Chinese bowyer until recently.
Ju Yuan Hao’s efforts have spawned a revival in traditional Chinese archery, with an annual Chinese traditional Archery Seminar taking place annually since 2009.
Archers in Folklore
Many nations throughout history have relied on skilled archers’ prominence in battle, to protect their lands and conquer others. So, it comes as no surprise that myths and legends are filled with references to great archers.
Apollo is one of the more well-known Greek deities and is the god of the sun, archery, and healing among other things. Using a quiver and bow made of gold, Apollo never missed his target.
Goddess of the hunt, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and regarded within the Greek pantheon for her proficiency with a bow and arrow.
Feng Meng is a mythological Chinese figure who was the apprentice of Houyi, a divine archer. Feng Meng grew jealous of Houyi’s ability as an archer and murdered him with a club made from a peach tree.
Cupid is the god of desire and attraction and is rarely depicted without his bow. It is said that anyone struck by Cupid’s arrow is immediately filled with uncontrollable lust.
Rama is a central figure in Hindu mythology. Known as a courageous warrior and skilled hunter, most depictions of Rama see him wielding his Bow.
English folklore depicts Robin Hood as an outlaw and skilled bowman, famed for being able to split an arrow already on his target. It is suspected that while a real Robin Hood never existed, he is instead an amalgamation of several real-life characters.
A legend of Swiss folklore, William Tell was an expert bowman; particularly skilled with a crossbow. Most famously William Tell was forced to shoot an arrow off of his own son’s head, lest they both be executed.
Famous Archers Throughout History
History has produced many great archers, whether it is for their prowess on the battlefield or successes in competition. Below we have compiled a shortlist of a few famous characters throughout the history of archery.
Known for authoring Archery: Its Theory and Practice, Horace A. Ford is considered to be one of the best archers that ever lived. Winning titles after having only picked up a bow four years prior, he went on to win 11 successive championships.
For over 70 years he maintained the highest scoring round of archery, with an impressive 1271.
Howard Hill is notable for winning the most field archery tournaments in a row, with a total of 196. Not only that but he went on to be a technical advisor for many Hollywood films of his day, even directing instructional movies on bowhunting with two books published in the 1950s.
Zhou Tong was a famed archery tutor during the Song dynasty, notable for guiding famed general Yue Fei in the way of the bow. After his death, Yue would pass these skills on to his own soldiers, who would prove successful in battle.
Known more for his philosophy than his archery, Confucius spent time as an archery teacher.
“A leader has no use for competitiveness. But if they can’t avoid it, they should compete at archery. As they bow and exchange courtesies before the contest and enjoy drinks after it, they still remain a leader even when competing.”
Modern Sport Archery
These days archery is typically only practiced as a hobby for competition, with some bowmen preferring to use a bow and arrow in place of modern firearms when hunting. Throughout this section I will give a brief overview of the most popular types of competitive archery you are likely to find.
Target archery is likely to be the first image you conjure when thinking about archery as a whole and is the principal form of archery practiced globally. Using targets standardized by WA (World Archery) that feature a bullseye and concentric rings.
Olympic archery is the most popular type of competitive archery in the world, using WA targets at a distance of 70m. Archers are only permitted to use recurve bows in Olympic archery.
Field archery is as much an endurance test as it is a test of an archer’s skills. Archers must traverse a set course of woodland or adverse terrain, there will be stationary targets along the course at unpredictable heights, distances and angles.
Field archery provides an extra level of difficulty for participants with extra variables that they wouldn’t experience in regular target archery; lighting levels, wind factors, unusual angles and aiming up or downhill all test a competitor’s abilities.
Clout archery for many is considered by many to be as close as we can get to the archery of medieval times. During clout competition, a flagpole (clout) is used instead of a regular target, and the goal for the archer is to loose their arrow vertically with the intent of land as close as possible to the clout.
Sometimes rings are drawn around the clout, to allow for a scoring system to be utilized.
Thank you for reading our article, hopefully it has given you a glimpse of the history of archery around the road. If you have any suggestions or comments, we would love to hear them down below.
We are always aiming to deliver the best archery content, so if there are any topics you would like us to cover or products you would like to see please get in contact with us.