Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Composite and Compound Bows of the Sahara (Jean-Lois Le Quellec)

Stuart Piggott suspected that some Bell Beaker archers possibly used compounded or composite-laminate bows.  He had reasons for this view, one of which was the amulets of Central Europe [here], which also have a parallel among African diaryists [here].

In any case, there are curious areas of Beaker bowmanship that diverge from normalcy and point to three possible different bow constructions.  It is commonly believed that composite bows enter the historical record late from the Asian steppe.  Le Quellec challenges this opinion, at least offers a more complicated picture of its emergence.

Camouflaged Archer from Tassili n'Ajjer.

But first, a little background.

I commented on a paper by Jan Apel [here], who further defined the origins of the Western European Copper Age lithic industry.  Although the majority Beaker points were hollow-bases, I chose to focus on the barb-and-tang, which has a simpler diagnostic of the directionality of North African lithics; for that time period, almost uniquely so (late 4th millenium).  Both were very common and ancient in the North African steppe and both appear sometimes in the grave of a single individual.  (notice the barbed, symmetrical projectile in the warrior above)

I've also commented on the discovery of a hemp bowstring that was partially preserved over a Palmela Point [here] at Perdigoes [here].  Hemp takes us to varsity-level archery.  More importantly, the uniformity of the string can tell us how the bow was likely strung which tells us about the bow.
If Andrew Sherratt's views stand, then corded pottery in Europe and Africa may have been impressed with hemp bowstring. 

In Sherratt's view, hemp was possibly used as a psychoactive additive within beaker beverages, which is entirely possible in the pre-hopped beer days.  I tend to believe that it was rather acacia [here] and that the beaker herringbone motif is actually stylized acacia, with acacia continuing for a while on its own.  (I think a good argument can be made for this and some appear intermediate, to me at least)

So on to Jean-Lois Le Quellec who has many interesting papers on North Africa.  He has made a compelling case that within the Western Desert of Egypt, Southern Libya and Algeria (and possibly Morocco) that a much more ancient history of composite or laminated bows in this region.  At least a compounded bow, and probably composite, is clearly visible in the bovid rock art which is reasonably well dated.

Bovid rock art of the Sahara has really three basic genres.  (1) guys walking around with bows
(2) people with cows, milking cows, or just cows (3) people bathing or humping.  The importance of archery for these people is quite evident, by it presence, but also by their bow's sophistication.

Le Quellec makes some observations concerning aspects of these bows that can be used when looking at those of Europe.  One is the position and style of the bracer, which is sometimes depicted.  This relief of Thutmosis IV (later) shows a bracer that is concentrated over the radial bone instead of the wrist or the fore-muscle.  You'll notice Thutmosis IV is also holding his bow vertically, not canted like a longbow.

I commented how the classes of Beaker bracers can tell us how bows were held, which tells us about the types of bows they used. [here] 

Another aspect that Le Quellec mentions is the parity of certain projectiles, historically, with certain types of bows. 

He notes (translated)

"...according to Edward Morse's classification, [the composite bow] one of the most widespread in the world most often uses arrows with a slotted shank."
We know from the Saharan pastoralist lithic industry that the projectiles we see are the types we could expect to be used with the composite or compounded bow.  About 5,000 years ago we see projectiles and bracers begin to spread into Western Europe via Iberia.  

A few quick notes.  The yew longbow was from the Neolithic to the invention of gun powder the preferred bow of Western Europe.  The reason is simply the native yew which makes an incredibly powerful but simple bow.  So composites, while present, never really replace longbows in the facade.

Also, Beaker bracers still present a problem.  They are overkill.  I've thought that their stone weight may have absorbed release shock.  The appearance of over-extension and shock injuries in the left arm of LN to Bronze Age men, will be my next topic.

Arcs et bracelets d'archers au Sahara et en Égypte, avec une nouvelle proposition de lecture des "nasses" sahariennes. CEMAf - Centre d'Etudes des Mondes Africains, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec 2011 [Link]

Abstract : The question of the composite bow in the Sahara is again examined, without it being possible to be sure of its presence. The existence of laminated bows is nevertheless possible, and some paintings show the use of archers' wrist-guards. The examination of the Egyptian archers' wrist-guards makes it possible to think that it is perhaps these objects that are represented by the famous Tazina style "traps".


  1. Bracers are more necessary with longbows than those composite horsebow types. There is no evidence of composite bows prior to 2000bce, nor is there any evidence of them in Europe prior to the Classical Greek/ scythian period. Egyptian art, while simplistic is no argument for. I wonder if the author ever shot a traditional bow.

    1. True, there is no positive evidence of composite bows before a certain date, but Le Quellec is looking at the circumstantial evidence.
      Very few bows or arrow-shafts have survived in Europe.

  2. No beaker bows are out of the norm for that time period in Europe.

  3. Those bows are likely short bows, with recurved tips achieved by heat treating and bending of the limb. This would give that short, horsebow appearance. Composite bows would have artifacts of horn around the bows. BTW, compound refers to modern mechanical bows.

    1. In this sense, compounded doesn't refer to a levered bow with pulleys, compounded as used by Le Quellec refers to bows with bound materials that aren't laminated. He has an example on Fig. 36

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. There are bounded bows in early Europe and even America too. Also, your post about Beaker bow draw weights, the gentleman is holding the bow wrong. You do not lock your arm. It is turned inward and the bracer goes over that bone and part of the underside, not the whole underside of your arm. Locking your arm will create the slap on the underside of the forearm, and is not correct form.

    1. It may depend on an individual's physiology.

      If you compare the bow-shaped pendants of Central European Beakers with the Meare Heath bow, it's possible to see some similarities. The purpose of the banding is controversial. It may have provided better distribution, or it may have banded a compound material, which in my opinion gives a better explanation for leather and sinew banding. It is dated to about 4600 BP.

      Also, in the link is an example of the oldest found European recurve at 3600.

  6. f you're referring to the build of the bow, it's about the availability of specific trees. In a place where there is a lack of elm, yew, or maple, you could have to compensate. If you're referring to how you hold a bow, that is universal... you never lock out your arm. You always turn it in, with the elbow facing out at about 90degrees.

    That banding might be just a type of backing, if they hadn't developed sinew or any other type of backing. This will just make it a little stronger. The Meare Heath is another flatbow, longbow, just like the Holmgaard, and Mollagabet types you see common with Bell Beaker.

    The recurve bow is from heated tips that I talked about. None has been found north of there, AFAIK. All Bell Beaker bows are of the flatbow/longbow variety.

  7. Of course that recurve is about 400 years after Beaker, either way. I'd be the style was brought from West Asia, during the Bronze Age.

  8. Hyksos=tecpatl tzotzoyotia=arrow society=tectzotz(N)=string beads/popcorn/arrows. one would need composite bow
    for rapid fire.

  9. Your Blog is very interesting, a real pleasure

    If the Bell Beakers (the first ones )have roots in Africa, . Don't you think that the NW African component of Dodecad is of this origin ? If you compare the national averages, if the results are correct of course !, , the level of this component is very high in portugal, the heart of this culture in Europe.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Hopefully I'm looking at the right chart (Africa9 on Dodecad)
      There are two aspects on North Africa that I look at.

      1. The Circum-Sahara probably contains relict ancestry of steppe pastoralists from the decline/implosion of the Green Sahara 3.5-3k B.C. I would call it a 'grass fire pattern' It could explain the odd presence of M269 in Nigeriens and Nubians and V88 in Chadic and Cameroonian peoples. I saw a study that showed M269 in two Pygmies. I think all sorts of weird stuff will come out of the proper sub-sahara eventually.

      2. Maternal Substrate among Atlas and Oasis Berbers within the burn pattern. After subtracting the hypothetical influx introduced in the EBA from the Horn of Africa or E. Africa, I suspect you are left with something that looks surprisingly European.

      I think at one time the Central Sahara pastoralist were more Iranian-like (4.5-3k B.C.)
      Their material culture (lithics, lifestyle) might support this. This population was very severely bottle-necked in the Bronze Age, which is about the time Afro-Asiatic nomads with browsing domesticates began overtaking the the region.

      I suspect by the Bronze Age the remaining cattle pastoralists were increasingly crowded in smaller valleys and oases such as Siwa, where they became vulnerable to highly nomadic raiders (Proto-Berber, Proto-Chadic, etc)
      So I don't know what proportion a pre-pre-proto-Beaker might have for NW African or European, but the NW African component might actually be a NE African Component?

      I'm not ready to gamble just yet.

  10. Those African components don't extend out of far SW Europe. They aren't connected to any R1b movements.

    As far as rapid firing... the type of bow does not matter. Anyone that shoots, knows that.

  11. "I think all sorts of weird stuff will come out of the proper sub-sahara eventually."

    Eg. Y DNA haplogroup N1c-Tat in Equatorial Guinea Bantu [Gonzalez et al, 2013].

    Finland or Latvia's lost colony in Africa??

    Q-MEH2 in Tanazania Sandawe [Xu et al. 2014];

    H*-M69 (xM82), and R-M124 [R2] in Biaka pygmies [Xu et al. 2014];

    R1a in Namibia Herero and Ethiopia Amhara;

    mtDNA haplogroup R7 in Rwanda Tutsi;

    There are dozens of these oddities out there.

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