Like atlatls, but to an even greater degree, bows are rare in the archaeological record because they were made of perishable materials. While some types of atlatls had more durable attachments such as hooks and weights, bows were almost always made of wood and various fibrous materials, except in some areas where they were made of horn or antler. Bows are thus exceedingly rare in the archaeological record, and when they do appear it is usually just as fragments. Many museums have large collections of complete bows, but these come almost entirely from modern ethnographic collections and are not necessarily the same types that were used in antiquity. Indeed, there seems to have been a major change in bow technology in the late prehistoric period throughout North America, in which the simple self bow was replaced by a more elaborate sinew-backed recurved type which was both smaller and more powerful. Ethnographic examples are almost always recurved, so understanding the older self bows requires study of the few archaeological examples available. These survive only under conditions of exceptional preservation, such as in caves and rockshelters.
One important discovery came about rather accidentally. In the 1930s, the University of New Mexico did some archaeological surveys in the southwestern part of the state, particularly in the relatively unexplored area in and around the Gila Mountains, between the Plains of San Agustin to the north and the well-known Mimbres Valley, famous for its black-on-white pottery, to the south. During one of these surveys, near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Frank Hibben, a graduate student at UNM who would go on to have a long career there as a professor of anthropology and director of the Maxwell Museum, decided to take a break to hunt mountain lions. (Hibben was an odd guy.) He chased one particular lion for many miles along the canyons and cliffs, and eventually followed its tracks into a small cliff dwelling high up on a canyon wall.
When he entered the site, Hibben found to his surprise a pile of bows, which had apparently originally been stacked in a corner but had been largely scattered and broken throughout the room. Furthermore, there were arrows strewn all across the floor of the site and the cave in which is was situated, also broken. There were about 94 bows and 4,000 arrows, an astonishingly high number. While they all appeared to be broken, probably by bears who had used the cave as a lair in the time since its abandonment, the sheer number of specimens made this cache an unparalleled resource for understanding early Southwestern weaponry. Realizing the importance of his discovery, Hibben collected the bows and brought them back for further study, after which he wrote a short article describing them which was published in American Antiquity in 1938.
The article is short and doesn’t give nearly as much information about the bows and arrows as would be ideal, but it does mention certain characteristics which are important in comparing these bows to other prehistoric and ethnographic examples. These all appear to have been self bows; Hibben made no mention of any sinew backing or recurving. They were also large. The average length of the restorable ones was about four and a half feet, and the longest was almost five feet long. The shortest was about three feet long, which Hibben described as “too small for any serious use,” although this is a typical length for recurved bows. Only one bow retained any fragment of bowstring, and it was made of yucca fiber. Sixteen bows were decorated with red or black stripes.
Hibben was unable to determine the type of wood for all of the bows, but from the ones that could be determined it was clear that oak was the preferred material. Other identified woods were piñon, (ponderosa?) pine, willow, mountain mahogany, and sycamore. (Note the absence of juniper, which will be important later.) Interestingly, the bowyers don’t seem to have selected particularly fine staves from which to make the bows, and knots are frequent. The surfaces, however, were finely finished and probably polished, suggesting that a considerable amount of effort did go into making these bows.
The most interesting thing about the arrows is that out of the thousands in the cave, only eleven had notches for stone heads to be attached. The rest were merely sharpened to create wooden points. This is important to keep in mind, given the large role arrowheads tend to play in theories about prehistoric weaponry. It’s understandable, since stone projectile points are the most durable parts of any weapon system, but if this ratio of stone to wooden points is typical (and there is of course no way to tell if it is) it suggests that stone points may not actually have been nearly as central as archaeologists often assume. The arrows were also elaborately decorated in a variety of designs and colors which Hibben interpreted as property marks.
There were some sherds of Mimbres Black-on-white pottery associated with the cache, suggesting that it dates to the Classic Mimbres period, ca. AD 1000 to 1150, which would make it contemporaneous with Chaco. This temporal placement makes sense, since the self bow is known to have been the main weapon used in the Southwest in this period. The recurved bow was introduced later, perhaps during the period of change and instability in the region around AD 1300, and persisted into historic times. The persistence of the recurved bow was presumably due to its considerable advantages over the self bow, which faded into the distant past as most examples deteriorated. One cache, however, survived thanks to its location in a sheltered cave, and was rediscovered due to the efforts of a crafty mountain lion and the archaeologist who pursued it. Knowledge comes about in odd ways sometimes.
Hibben, F. (1938). A Cache of Wooden Bows from the Mogollon Mountains American Antiquity, 4 (1) DOI: 10.2307/275360