Composition of Bushmen Arrows

The topic of the composition of Bushmen arrows for hunting is vast and intricate. Numerous anthropological studies have documented the unique designs utilized by nearly every family group of Bushmen in Southern Africa. These designs are often a result of specific preferences and adaptations that have developed over time due to the isolated existence of these family bands. Moreover, the varying degrees of influence from neighboring Bantu-speaking tribes are also reflected in the composition and designs of their arrows.

Arrow compositions became more standardized now

Certain Bushman groups, such as the Hai//om at Etosha Pan, traditionally crafted single wooden arrow shafts using Grewia sp. Other Bushman groups, however, typically utilized reed stems as shaft material and designed a 3-piece composition for their arrows. Arrowheads were commonly crafted from bone, stones, hardwood, glass, or metal, and came in a variety of shapes. For many years, a highly debated topic among anthropologists was whether or not Bushmen utilized feathers on their arrows.

Unfortunately, these questions have become increasingly irrelevant in modern times. Over the past century, “civilized” societies have nearly eradicated all Bushmen groups beyond a reservation in the Northeast of Namibia. Even these last remaining groups are currently under severe threat. Since the area is no longer a designated reservation and is open to all citizens, the gentle Bushmen are frequently oppressed by members of other tribes.

Composition of contemporary bushmen hunting arrows

This article will focus on how the last remaining Ju//hoansi Bushmen craft their arrows today, with a particular emphasis on those intended to act via poison rather than cutting blood vessels or delivering a shock upon impact. The Bushmen also create slightly shorter variations of these arrows for tourists, as well as simple reed arrows with wooden tips for the training of Bushmen children.

As is well-known, the bow and arrow must function as a single system. The size and strength of the bow, as well as its brace height, determine the draw length of the arrow. For a hunting bow, a general rule of thumb is that the arrow length should be approximately three times the brace height, which means that a hunting arrow should measure around 60cm/23 inches in length with a brace height of 20cm. These bushmen arrows are relatively lightweight, with an average total weight of around 7 grams for a metal-tipped arrow. The metal head typically weighs around 3 grams, while the link- and main shaft each weigh approximately 2 grams.

Hunting arrows typically consist of three detachable parts: a reinforced main shaft, a link shaft made of bone, and an arrowhead. The link shaft is attached to the main shaft, and the arrowhead is fitted onto the link shaft. When an animal is struck, either a barbed arrowhead or a long bony arrow tip penetrates the skin and remains lodged there. As the animal moves, the main shaft or main and link shafts detach, ensuring that the arrowhead remains embedded in the animal’s skin and cannot be pulled out.

Arrow head

Two types of arrow heads are common.

One type of arrowhead commonly used by the Ju//hoansi Bushmen is a metal triangle tip with a long shaft. The triangle tip itself is never poisoned, but the shaft is wrapped with strips of animal sinew or ligaments to hold the poison. It is too dangerous for the hunter to have the arrowhead poisoned, as it could cause injury if accidentally touched. For this reason, these metal-tipped arrows with poison on the shaft are always transported in a tightly closed quiver. At the end of the metal shaft, the sinew wrapping is done many times to create a sleeve for holding one end of the link shaft.

Another type of arrowhead used by the Ju//hoansi Bushmen is a long, round tip made of giraffe bone. Although this material is very dense, it can still be carved with a knife. Unlike the metal-tipped arrow, this type of arrowhead does not have any barbs. Instead, it relies on deep penetration into the skin and meat of the animal. In this case, the poison is directly applied to the arrowhead. To prevent accidental poisoning of the hunter, the bony arrow tip is turned around together with the link shaft. And both will be sheathed in the main shaft. More information on this can be found in this article.

Link shaft

The link shaft plays a crucial role in ensuring that the arrow detaches from the animal as soon as possible after being hit. Having two connections on a shaft makes it more secure than just one. Ostrich legbone is the preferred material for the link shaft because of its strength and durability. However, if ostrich bone is not available, leg bones from other large antelopes such as eland or kudu can be used. The shape of the link shaft is typically crude, with two conical shapes on either side.

Main shaft

Straight reed stems are commonly used for the arrow shaft. And they are reinforced with sinew or ligament wrappings over an adhesive. The V-nock is always cut below a culm node.

Additional material used for arrow making

In our previous article about manufacturing a bushmen bow (see here), we discussed in detail the use of adhesives and ligaments. When it comes to arrows, if giraffe ligaments are scarce, they can be replaced with sinews from other large antelopes.

In future articles, we will delve into the topic of bushmen arrow poisons, quivers, and bow string making. Stay tuned for more information on these subjects.

Lessons learned about the composition of bushmen arrows:

  • In the past, there was a wide variety of bushmen arrow designs and compositions.
  • Due to the eradication of bushmen communities, which is still ongoing, these designs and compositions have narrowed down to few variations.
  • A bushmen arrow is composed of three functional parts: the main shaft, the link shaft, and the arrow head.
  • The arrow head is always poisoned for hunting purposes.
  • In metal heads, only the metal shaft is poisoned to avoid accidental injury to the hunter.
  • Bone tip arrow heads are poisoned along the entire length and are stored with turned-around tips in the main shaft.