Hunting Tactic to Olympic Sport: When Was Archery Invented? | History Hit

Hunting Tactic to Olympic Sport: When Was Archery Invented?

The meeting of the Royal British Bowmen in the grounds of Erthig, Denbighshire.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The history of archery is entwined with the history of humanity. One of the oldest arts practiced, archery was formerly a vital military and hunting tactic across the world and throughout history, with archers both on foot and mounted on horses constituting a major part of many armed forces.

Though the introduction of firearms caused the practice of archery to decline, archery is immortalised in the mythologies and legends of many cultures and is a popular sport at events such as the Olympic Games.

Archery has been practised for 70,000 years

The use of bows and arrows was likely developed by the later Middle Stone Age, some 70,000 years ago. The oldest found stone points for arrows were made in Africa about 64,000 years ago, though bows from the time no longer exist. The earliest solid evidence of archery dates to the late Paleolithic period in around 10,000 BC when the Egyptian and neighbouring Nubian cultures used bows and arrows for hunting and warfare.

There is further evidence of this via arrows discovered from that era which have shallow grooves on the base, which suggests they were shot from a bow. Much evidence of archery has been lost because arrows were initially made of wood, rather than stone. In the 1940s, bows estimated to be around 8,000 years old were discovered in a swamp in Holmegård in Denmark.

Archery spread across the world

Archery came to the Americas via Alaska around 8,000 years ago. It spread south into the temperate zones as early as 2,000 BC, and was widely known by indigenous people of North America from around 500 AD. Slowly, it emerged into an important military and hunting skill worldwide, and with it came mounted archery as a highly effective feature of many Eurasian nomad cultures.

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Ancient civilisations, most notably the notably the Persians, Parthians, Egyptians, Nubians, Indians, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese formalised archery training and equipment and introduced large numbers of archers into their armies, using them against massed formations of infantry and cavalry. Archery was hugely destructive, with its effective use in battle often proving decisive: for instance, Greco-Roman pottery depicts skilled archers at pivotal moments in both warfare and hunting settings.

It was widely practised in Asia

The earliest evidence of archery in China dates to the Shang Dynasty from 1766-1027 BC. At that time, a war chariot carried a driver, lancer, and archer. During the Zhou Dynasty from 1027-256 BC, nobles at court attended archery tournaments which were accompanied by music and entertainment.

In the sixth century, China’s introduction of archery to Japan had an overwhelming influence on Japan’s culture. One of Japan’s martial arts was originally known as ‘kyujutsu’, the art of the bow, and today is known as ‘kyudo’, the way of the bow.

Middle Eastern archers were the most skilled in the world

A depiction of Assyrian archers from the 17th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Middle Eastern archery equipment and techniques reigned for centuries. The Assyrians and Parthians pioneered a highly effective bow which could shoot an arrow up to 900 yards away, and were likely the first to master archery from horseback. Atilla the Hun and his Mongols conquered much of Europe and Asia, while Turkish archers pushed back the Crusaders.

Distinctive styles of equipment and techniques developed across the world. Asian warriors were often mounted on horseback, which led to the shorter composite bows being popular.

In the middle ages, the English longbow was famous and widely used in European battles such as Crécy and Agincourt. Interestingly, a law in England forced every man of adult age to practise archery every Sunday was never repealed, though it is presently ignored.

Archery declined when firearms became more popular

When firearms started appearing, archery as a skill started to decline. Early firearms were, in many ways, still inferior to bows and arrows, since they were susceptible to wet weather, and were slow to load and fire, with reports from the Battle of Samugarh in 1658 stating that archers were ‘shooting six times before a musketeer [could] fire twice’.

However, firearms had a longer and more effective range, greater penetration and required less training to operate. Highly-trained archers thus became obsolete on the battlefield, though archery continued in some areas. For instance, it was used in the Scottish Highlands during the repression that followed the decline of the Jacobite cause and by the Cherokees after the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

At the end of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 in Japan, some rebels started using bows and arrows, while Korean and Chinese armies trained archers until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Likewise, the Ottoman Empire had mounted archery until 1826.

Archery developed into a sport

A panel depicting Archery in England from Joseph Strutt’s 1801 book, ‘The sports and pastimes of the people of England from the earliest period.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though archery became obsolete in warfare, it developed into a sport. It was primarily revived by the upper classes of Britain who practiced it for fun between 1780 and 1840. The first archery competition in modern times was held between 3,000 participants in Finsbury in England in 1583, while the first recreational archery societies appeared in 1688. It was only after the Napoleonic Wars that archery became popular among all classes.

In the mid 19th century, archery evolved from a recreational activity into a sport. The first Grand National Archery Society meeting was held in York in 1844 and over the next decade, strict rules were set which formed the basis for a sport.

Archery first featured at the modern Olympic Games from 1900 to 1908 and in 1920. World Archery was founded in 1931 to secure the sport a permanent place on the programme, which was achieved in 1972.

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Archery is mentioned in popular mythology

The popularity of archery can be seen in the many ballads and folklore stories. The most famous is Robin Hood, while references to archery were also frequently made in Greek mythology, such as the Odyssey, where Odysseus is mentioned as being a highly skilled archer.

Though bows and arrows are no longer used in warfare, their evolution from a weapon in the Middle Stone Age to the highly-engineered sporting bows used at events such as the Olympics mirror a similarly fascinating timeline of human history.

Lucy Davidson