Bow and Arrow Spread into North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The bow and arrow, introduced from Asia into North America, became important tools of hunting and warfare among nearly all of the native North American cultures. Favored especially by early nomadic groups, use of the bow and arrow spread southward with migrating peoples and proved instrumental both in deciding conflicts with the more settled groups and in aiding the nomads’s survival through the acquisition of game.

Summary of Event

The use of the arrow alone, in the form of a dart or light throwing spear, is believed to predate the use of the combined archery bow and arrow. The efficacy of these earliest hand-propelled missile weapons was later improved by the introduction of a separate launching tool in the form of a corded sling or notched throwing stick, such as the Australian woomera (wooden rod with a hooked end), which added greater impetus to the throw. The development of the archery bow as a specialized tool for launching arrows is thought by some anthropologists to represent a separate and distinct stage of cultural development as important as the discovery of fire. The first recorded use of archery bows occurred quite early in human history. Images from Paleolithic and Mesolithic cave paintings (c. 10,000-5000 b.c.e.) in Spain and France depict groups of simple silhouette figures using the bow as both a weapon of combat and the hunt. One such image from Castellón, Spain, shows an archer nocking an arrow with one hand while clasping a bow and three extra arrows in his other fist. [kw]Bow and Arrow Spread into North America (c. 700) [kw]Arrow Spread into North America, Bow and (c. 700) [kw]North America, Bow and Arrow Spread into (c. 700) [kw]America, Bow and Arrow Spread into North (c. 700) Bow and arrow North America;c. 700: Bow and Arrow Spread into North America[0450] Science and technology;c. 700: Bow and Arrow Spread into North America[0450]

Evidence suggests that Subarctic peoples first brought the archery bow with them to North America from Asia (c. 30,000-10,000 b.c.e.). Its use gradually spread throughout the coastal regions, then southeastward following the principal migratory routes of nomadic hunters. Critical to the development and use of the bow was the availability of certain key natural materials. These included wood of sufficient tensibility (Osage orange, yew, hickory, ash) for the bow and arrow shafts, stone or malleable metal (flint, obsidian, iron, copper) for the arrow points, sinew or plant fiber for the bowstring, and feathers for fletching. As a consequence of these resource needs, the adoption of the archery bow, with slight regional variations in its structure, naturally progressed through those geographic regions in which such materials were plentiful. By c. 700, the archery bow was used throughout North America.

One case in point will serve as an illustration: The Mogollon people were the first to adopt the bow in the Southwestern region of what is now called the United States (c. 100-200). Subsequent Mogollon trade with the Hohokam people (southern Arizona area) brought the bow farther into the continental interior. Sometime between 400 and 500, the bow was introduced into the Great Plains and found use among the Arapaho, Blackfoot, and Cree peoples (all descendants of the Lenape). Later, between 500 and 600, the Lenape, now allied with the Wyandotte Iroquois, defeated the Talega of the Great Lakes region, extending their influence south into the Ohio Valley. Ironically, when offered a chance to acquire eighteenth century flintlocks, many tribes of the Great Lakes region refused, preferring the bow and arrow for their stealth and rapid fire capabilities.

The bow of the Plains Indians, familiar to many from its appearances in Western films and nineteenth century illustrations, is actually a later form (after c. 1500) shortened for use on horseback. This shortened form came into use following the introduction of horses to North America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Before that time, the most common Plains bows resembled more closely, both in their size and draw strength, the European longbows used by archers in the Battle of Agincourt (1415). A surviving specimen of one such Plains longbow, measuring 57 inches (145 centimeters) in length, was recovered from Blanco Canyon in northwest Texas in the 1980’. Found alongside a skeleton and some stone implements, the bow was part of a burial cache located under the lip of a caprock escarpment.

The physical characteristics of this bow are striking in several respects. In addition to its surprising length, the limbs of the bow are recurved, rather than straight as one might expect, imparting a graceful gull-wing appearance. Most surprising of all, the bow is almost round in cross section, except for a shallow quarter-inch groove that runs the length of its inner (or belly) surface, a distinct departure from the rectangular cross sections of most European and modern bows. Also, the bow features two sets of string nocks at each tip, the purpose of which may have been to increase the draw weight of the bow by shortening the limbs and, thus, making the bow more powerful. Another possible explanation may be that because animal fiber bowstrings are affected by moisture, the second set of nocks may have been added to allow the hunter to adjust the string tension to compensate for the inevitable stretching of the sinew or rawhide in damp weather.

As the bows of the Anasazi and the Pueblo people are known to be round in cross section, it is believed that this bow originated not in the heart of the Plains, but farther west, perhaps in northwestern New Mexico. It is known that from prehistoric times onward, people of the Pueblos made periodic autumn and winter migrations to hunt the Plains buffalo for meat and hides. It may have been one of these journeys that the ill-fated hunter and his bow were left behind.

A second prehistoric bow more than 75 inches (190 centimeters) in length, with limbs 1.75 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide tapering to 1.25 inches (3 centimeters) at the tips, was found leaning against a cave wall in central Texas, along the eastern boundary of the Plains, during the later years of the nineteenth century. Apparently made of hickory—although the great age of the wood precludes exact identification—the bow incorporates what appears to be an arrow shelf or rest, a finger-sized notch cut into the handle. Firing the arrow through the resulting notch would result in a partial reduction of the archer’s paradox—the tendency of an arrow’s shaft to oscillate, flexing along its long axis in flight—thereby increasing the weapon’s accuracy.

It is important to note that in both of these instances, the bows came to the Texas Plains from areas farther west and northeast, respectively.


Although widely adopted by almost all North American Indian cultures, the use of the archery bow is not an absolute universal. Among the Haida of the Northwest coast, for example, the principal hunting strategy was the spearing of fish and seals at close range, and, thus, the bow and arrow never found an enduring niche there. Likewise, the great warrior cultures of early Mexico eschewed the bow in favor of the club and sword, which proved themselves highly effective when wielded by massed warriors in large, tightly organized formations. The bow and arrow seems to have been favored by more loosely organized peoples that tended to hunt and fight as individuals or in small groups. In such a context, the bow became a powerful tool, lending more force to small groups by effectively extending the range, accuracy, and power of their primitive missile weapons—the stopping power of even the short Plains bows being sufficient to fell large animals such as the buffalo when wielded by an experienced archer. In warfare, the Apache further enhanced the arrow’s killing potential, making the arrows poisonous by dipping them into decomposing liver or into scorpion or snake venom or by rubbing them with the poison spines of the common cacti (Opuntia) mixed with grease.

Following the introduction of the horse, the mounted Apache and Comanche archers became as potent a military force as their Mongolian forebears, whose sweeping raids of conquest devastated medieval Europe. It remains a testament to these Indian archers’s skill with the bow and arrow that they won many engagements against better equipped U.S. Cavalry troops before being subjugated in the late nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allely, Steve, and Jim Hamm. Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows, and Quivers. New York: Lyons Press, 1999. Focuses exclusively on the North American bow and arrow. Includes illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Tim, et al. The Traditional Boyer’s Bible. Vol. 3. New York: Lyons Press, 1994. A collection of essays on the origins, design, construction, and proper use of a variety of wooden bows and arrows. This book is highly recommended for those seeking to create replicas. Includes a discussion of bows and arrows found at several significant North American archeological sites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, Leo, III. Native Time: An Historical Time Line of Native America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A comprehensive historical survey presented in time line format across several simultaneous developmental dimensions: historical, cultural, philosophical, and biographical. Traces related developments in material culture, including the cultural dispersion of the bow and arrow. The time line ranges from the prehistoric Calico culture of the Mojave Desert (c. 200,000 b.c.e.) to the contemporary epoch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, T. M. Native American Bows. 2d ed. Columbia, Mo.: Missouri Archaeological Society, 1982. Includes an appendix on making bows, photographs of horn bows and other illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harding, David, ed. Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C.E. to 2000 A.D. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. A visual cross-cultural survey of weaponry development (from c. 10,000 b.c.e.), tracing the evolution of hand-thrown missiles to missile throwers (bows) in their diverse forms among world cultures. Well illustrated with detailed, schematic drawings, engravings, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laubin, Reginald. American Indian Archery. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. Part of the Civilization of the American Indian series, examines the history of the use of the bow and arrow. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGee, W. J. Seventeenth Annual Report of the American Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1895-1896. Treats the genesis of the bow and arrow in a representative western coastal culture, the Seri tribe of Sonora and of Tiburón Island (Gulf of California). Traces the origin of the archery bow and establishes parallels between the aim-at-draw postures used by archers of the Seri and African cultures. Scholarly and diverse in scope.

Categories: History