Making bushmen bows for hunting
The Bushmen, generally speaking, employ bows and poisoned arrows for the purpose of “tracking and stalking” during hunting in Northern Namibia and North-Western Botswana. The various Bushmen tribes utilize different materials and techniques for crafting these weapons. However, in this article, we will focus solely on the bows of the Ju:/hoansi people (formerly known as !Kung).
It is important to note that the term “Bushmen” is not intended to be derogatory but is widely recognized and understood. While other terms such as “San” or “Khoisan” may also be used, they are not as well known. Please excuse my use of the term “Bushmen,” as I hold them in high esteem.
Parts of a bushman hunting bow
A Bushmen bow is composed of several parts, including the stave, the string, cord stops, and materials for preserving the bow’s elasticity.
The bow stave is typically round in cross-section and tapers at both ends. The preferred wood for the stave is White Raisin Bush (Grewia Bicolor). The bushmen do not use fronds of iLala palms (Hyphaene Coriacea) for their bows, but neighboring Ovambo tribes do. The bow arms are often reinforced by wrapping them with animal sinews, ligaments, or leather strips at various points.
The length of the bow varies depending on the target game, shooting range, family group tradition, and the available materials. The average length of a bow is between 98-115 cm (3.2-3.8 ft). Short bows of approximately 69 cm (2.3 ft) are used for hunting small birds like quails and francolins. The longest bows, used by Northern !Kung tribes, can reach up to 150 cm (4.9 ft) in length. The typical brace height of Bushmen bows is around 20 cm (approximately 8 inches).
Once the stave material has been cut to the correct length, it is hewn on both ends to the required tapered dimensions using a multi-tool that can be used as both an adze and a chopping tool. Interestingly, this tool can also be used as a pipe for smoking tobacco.
After shaping the stave, it is debarked using a knife blade turned 90 degrees to the stave. This process involves scraping the bark off rather than cutting it, to avoid removing any outer wooden cells along the round cross-section that could compromise the bow’s strength.
The bow string is typically fixed on one end of the stave using a simple sling and on the other end by multiple wraps. However, before attaching the string, both ends of the bow stave must be prepared for these attachments. The bushmen do not cut into the stave wood but rather reinforce the stave ends and add-on the cord stop.
At the end of the stave where the sling is attached, an adhesive is applied and then covered with a layer of separated strings of giraffe suspensory ligament. The cord stop itself is just a slight increase in the thickness of this ligament string on the stave.
There are two more details to consider: the adhesive used to glue the ligament to the stave and the ligament itself.
Adhesive used on the stave
Bushmen commonly use two different types of natural adhesives for bow assembly: Sweet thorn acacia (Vachellia karoo) resin and sap from Commiphora species.
Sweet thorn acacia resin is collected by making cuts into the trunk and allowing the sap to ooze out and harden in the air. This resin has a white-yellowish-reddish color and looks similar to “Arabic gum.” To apply it to the bow, it is heated, applied, and it will re-harden again.
In our case, black resin was used, which is Commiphora sap boiled and mixed with fine charcoal. This addition thickens the adhesive and improves its holding strength. The most famous Commiphora resin is extracted from Commiphora africana, the African Myrrh. It is often used in cosmetics and therefore valuable for generating cash. Other Commiphora species found in the area include C. crenatifolia (Dune corkwood), C. gariepina (Gariep corkwood), C. kraeuseliana (Mountain corkwood), C. mossambicensis (Mozambique corkwood), and C. pyracanthoides (Firethorn corkwood). Sap from all of these species can be used to produce adhesives to glue ligaments onto the stave. The boiled and ready-mixed glue is smeared onto a small stick and then rubbed onto the stave.
Strings of giraffe ligament
Both Bushmen in Southern Africa and the Hadza people in Tanzania use giraffe leg suspensory ligaments to bind their bow staves.
Fully grown giraffes weigh around 1000 kg (2200 lbs). As a result, each leg has to support at least 250 kg of weight constantly. Due to their long and thin legs, it is essential for giraffes to have strong bones and suspensory ligaments in these areas. This is why the outer layers of the fused metatarsal and metacarpal bones, also known as giraffe cannon bones, are preferred for arrow parts by bushmen. And the suspensory ligament from the giraffe legs is also the preferred binding material for the bow staves.
I want to stress the fact, that these strings are not sinews, but ligaments specific to giraffes. See this article. Although in nearly every literature about bushmen and even in museums, this suspensory ligament is called ‘sinew’. But this suspensory ligament has got very specific characteristics. One is its length, stringiness and uniform thickness. It is situated within a channel in the bones. When dry it can be separated into very fine, long strings. When wetting these strings, they become immediately soft and stick on each other like glued upon. And this adhesion action can be made permanent when heating up moderately. And after hardening, these ligament strings become colorless.
In modern times, Bushmen rarely shoot giraffes. As a result, game farmers in Northern Namibia typically provide the metatarsals and metacarpals of hunted or preyed upon giraffes to Bushmen communities. When Bushmen do shoot a giraffe, the first step in butchering is to remove the four cannon bones for immediate processing, even before gutting the animal. This demonstrates the high value that these bones and ligaments hold for them.
Wrapping of giraffe ligament
The ligament strings are dried and then rehydrated in water before use. Thin strips of ligament are plucked out and used for binding. These wet ligament strings are wound around the adhesive layer at the stave end where the string sling is attached. It is important to keep the ligament strings wet during wrapping by applying spit to them.
At the end of the stave where the string will be wrapped around, the same black adhesive as described before will be applied. The wet giraffe ligament string is then wrapped around this area, with a short twig bound into the wrapping. This twig serves as a cord stop. It also helps to jam the string end after stringing the bow with the correct tension.
After completing the wrapping process, the wet giraffe ligament string is slowly dried over a small piece of glowing coal. It is crucial to toast the wrapping just enough to fully dry it without burning it. This causes the wrapping to shrink and securely binds all parts together.
The traditional bowstrings used for bushmen bows were either made from Steenbuck (Raphicerus campestris) bellies or finely twisted leather strips of Kudus (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) sinews. The two backstrap sinews of a fully grown Kudu can be up to 1.2 meters long and are flat in shape. These sinews are split into single strings that can be twisted together to form a long and combined string. Two of these combined strings are then twisted in the opposite direction of the single-string twisting direction to manufacture the traditional bowstring.
In the early 20th century, bushmen learned from neighboring Bantu tribes to use plant fibers from Sanseviera species. Since than these plant fibers have nearly completely replaced all other animal-based string materials used by them.
Kudu sinews and leather strips used as string materials are non-elastic. After shooting, most of the remaining energy in the bow arms is immediately absorbed by these animal-based strings. This puts a significant strain on the bow arms. On the other hand, plant fibers are more elastic and can absorb some of the energy, reducing the strain on the bow.
Since the process of making bowstrings from Sansevieria plant species requires detailed explanation, we will write a separate article on this topic.
To maintain the elasticity of the bow and to avoid formation of cracks, the wood must be regularly lubricated. For this purpose the fat pad under the kneecap of large antelopes or Zebras is used. If a bow is curving too much, bone marrow will be applied for straightening the stave up again. Bowstrings of twirled pieces of skin or sinew will be rubbed with bone marrow at regular intervals to ensure continued elasticity. On the other hand, plant fiber strings are coated with beeswax.
Lessons learned about bushmen bows for hunting:
- The average length of bushmen bows for hunting mammals is around 1.1 meters (3.6 feet). And a brace height of approximately 20 centimeters (8 inches) is most common.
- The preferred bow wood comes from Raisin bush species, especially Grewia bicolor.
- Corkwood (Commiphora sp.) sap and strings of giraffe ligaments are used for cord stops on both stave ends.
- Traditionally, bushmen used Kudu backstrap sinews for the string, but nowadays, Sanseviera plant fibers are mainly utilized.