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Dr. Brown: Bows and arrows from childhood to 54,000 years ago
Dr. William Brown Supplied

When I was a boy growing up in London, Ont., life was framed by the few blocks surrounding my home on Oxford Street, the nearby Thames River, and the adjacent bushy forested areas that flanked it, Gibbons Park, and alleyways in the middle of the city blocks.

All was fair game for kids full of energy, adventure and lots of time after school and before dark. With no adults in charge, we were free to explore, make up games and get up to no good, where the only rules seemed to be to show up on time for supper and be back home before dark. 

Sometimes things got out of hand.

My eldest brother, Bob, was a Dakota (DC3) pilot in the Second World War, whose job was to fly supplies to Allied troops behind Japanese lines in Burma or across the Himalayan mountains into China from northeast India.

Among the many treasures he brought home were several belts of rifle-calibre machine-gun bullets, safely hidden, he thought, in his trunk in our family attic. 

It wasn’t long before we discovered those belts and together with friends, we separated bullets from their brass casings following which, with great glee, we struck the bases of the casings and were rewarded with big bangs to the consternation of some neighbours.

No one found out, nor was anyone hurt but it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Later when my brother found out what happened to his cache of bullets, he was furious with me – with good cause.

We also made our own bows and arrows. They were simple affairs modelled on what we thought Robin Hood’s bows might look like. We fashioned them from maple and the result was a bow capable of projecting nail-pointed arrows 30 or so yards with reasonable accuracy. 

Then one day, I shot an arrow straight up from my backyard, only to lose sight of it in the sun. Seconds later there was an angry expletive from my next-door neighbor’s yard.

Fortunately, moments before he had risen from his chair only to hear a crack and discover to tip of my arrow buried in the back of his chair. Needless to say, that affair ended my bow and arrow days but not my boyhood fascination with them as a weapon given the role English long bows played in defeating the French in the Battle of Agincourt.

Recently, my long-ago fascination with bows and arrows was rekindled by the question of when bows and arrows were invented.

A study of a site in France, called Grotte Mandrin in the Rhone Valley, revealed hundreds of flint points whose remarkably uniform size and shape strongly suggested they were used as tips for arrows, in much the same way similar tipped arrows are used by modern day hunter-gatherer groups to fashion their arrow tips.

The tips often revealed fracture lines created by high-velocity impacts characteristic of arrow tips. 

The site was dated to 54,000 years ago and pushes back the date when modern humans were found in western Europe by almost 10,000 years, raising the question of just how early did modern humans settle in western Europe.

The point is important because some earlier cave art was attributed to Neanderthals, based on the assumption they were the only homo species in western Europe much before 45,000 years ago.

Evidence of similar finely worked arrow heads in South Africa, dating back more than 70,000 years ago, suggests that even earlier origins for bows and arrows elsewhere in Africa. 

Oddly enough, despite evidence that Neanderthals were fully capable of bringing down huge elephants of a species long extinct, there’s no evidence they fashioned and used bows and arrows in their hunts.

Instead, these large animals were apparently killed at close range using spears and even hand-held hafted stone weapons. The risks to the hunters at such close range must have been huge and might have been mitigated somewhat by employing longer range weapons such as bows and arrows. 

Clearly, modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped for more than enough time for Neanderthals to have observed and learned how humans employed bows and arrows. Which begs the question – Why not?

I don’t know why. But in the see-saw debate from considering Neanderthals as dimwitted and crude to newer studies suggesting they were near cognitive and creative equals to modern humans, perhaps the balance is swinging back to the view that Neanderthals were not the equal of modern humans and were slow to adopt newer technologies that might have ensured their survival.

To which, recent mini-brain and genetic studies support somewhat diminished cognitive skills of Neanderthals compared to modern humans. 

For modern humans as a species, the question is not whether we lack innovation – we are masters of innovation – but without the collective wisdom to control our worst instincts and impulses.

Climate change for the worst is bad enough but perhaps, for very different reasons, the result for us will be the same as the Neanderthals: extinction.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.

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