Bushmen arrows and their recent history:
Crossed Outlooks of Historical,
Ethnological and Archaeological Sources
François BON, François-Xavier FAUVELLE-AYMAR
Bushmen weapons were considered very early by ethnology: the vision of these nomadic hunter-gatherers walking away into the horizon of the Kalahari Desert, with their bows and arrows on their back, is one of the most iconic representations of this disappearing lifestyle.
Besides the technical values that were brought into play in the making of this equipment, their role as vector of social values has also been greatly illustrated. It has been shown, in particular, the way in which an arrow creates a link between the hunter and his prey, but also the interactions the arrow conveys between the user of the weapon and the social networks to which he belongs.
Nevertheless, most reference systems are based on the equipment of sub-contemporary and current populations, i.e. on those used by groups occupying a limited territory in the Kalahari Desert, straddling Botswana and Namibia. Yet, only a few decades ago, Bushmen occupied much vaster areas, corresponding to a large western half of Southern Africa, involving the exploitation of territories ecologically more contrasted than today. In addition, the socio-economic status of the ancestors of today’s Bushmen was, it seems, more diversified: groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers lived side by side with pastoralists (who also practiced hunting), and it is likely that both sides belonged, to a greater or lesser degree, to societies with close links between them.
Research works realised on several collections of bows and arrows kept in South African museums and compared with historical sources (travel accounts from the 16th to the 19th centuries in particular), also bring to light greater diversity: the diversity of the actual armoury (the spear, the club and the throwing stick in addition to the bows and arrows); diversity in the way the arrows are actually made; and the diversity of their supposed functions (from hunting to war). Behind such diversity, we can try to grasp the complexity of the recent history of the Bushmen populations.