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Bow, Gran Chaco region
Uruguay, early 20th century
Grayson Collection, MAC1992-0244
Widespread throughout the Americas at the time of European contact, the bow was employed in hunting and warfare by most peoples of the western hemisphere. Various types of specialized archery equipment were also used for ceremonial purposes, traditional games, and other activities. The self bow dominated—it is the only form known in Central and South America and in North America east of the Mississippi River—and occurs in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sinew-backed bows were also used by the horse archers of the Plains and by tribes of northern California and adjacent areas. In arctic North America, bows usually were made of one or more pieces of wood, antler, musk-ox horn, or bone that were bound together and reinforced with a complex system of unglued sinew cords.
Native North American bows are often decorated with painted geometric designs. In South America, woven or wrapped plant-fiber embellishments and feather trimmings are typical. Arrows of the Americas vary depending on available materials, function, and the type of bow used. Shafts are of reed or wood with two or three feathers (tangential or radial) for fletching. Stone heads, later replaced by metal ones, are common on arrows from North America, Mesoamerica, and southern South America. The extremely long arrows of the South American rainforests are tipped with several specialized heads, usually made from bamboo or wood. Bag-like quivers of animal skin or woven plant materials were widespread throughout the Americas. Combined bowcase and quiver sets were common, especially among the horse archers of the Plains and adjacent areas. The arrows of tropical South America are usually carried in the archer’s hand because their length make quivers impractical. Poisoned heads, however, are often carried separately in small tube-like containers.
Most native people of the Americas wore some sort of wrist guard to protect against the impact of the bowstring. In South America, wrappings of cotton strings or human hair were worn, as were bracers of leather, bark cloth, or wood. Simple leather wrist guards were common to North America, although the Navajo and other silversmiths of the American Southwest made elaborate bracers. Small guards of carved bone, ivory, or antler are typical of arctic North America.
The bow retained its use among some native groups of the Americas until the late historic period, but in many areas it was replaced by firearms for hunting and warfare at a fairly early date. Traditional archery techniques have survived among certain groups, but the bows and arrows made today are usually for traditional ceremonial or sport activities or created as native craftworks for sale. The traditional archery of the aboriginal people of the Americas is most intact today among the indigenous groups of tropical South America, whose inaccessible habitations have prevented foreign intrusion until quite recent times. Many of these groups now live within protected reserves that allow them to follow traditional practices, and the use of the bow remains a routine part of their lifestyle.
This online exhibit presents representative examples of archery equipment of the tribal people of North and South America from the Museum’s Grayson Archery Collection. Included are traditional hunting and war gear, as well as ceremonial and trade items.
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References and Related Links
Hamilton, T. M. 1982. Native American Bows. Missouri Archaeological Society Special Publications No. 5. Columbia.
Heath, E.G. and V. Chiara. 1977. Brazilian Indian Archery. Manchester, England: Simon Archery Foundation.
Mason, O. T. 1893. North American bows, arrows, and quivers. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report (1892), 631–679.
Métraux, A. 1949. Weapons. In Handbook of South American Indians, Vol. 5, edited by J. Steward, pp. 229–263. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.
Text prepared by Mary French, Charles E. Grayson, and Michael J. O’Brien, winter 2006.
Photos by Daniel S. Glover.
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