Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Austronesian Archery

Lots of words have now been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian, the reconstructed ancestor of the Austronesian languages probably spoken on Taiwan between around 4000-3500 BCE.  There are plenty of words for common objects and ideas - houses, for instance, or parts of the body.  Other terms refer to technologies, and the reconstructed words allow us to say that the speakers of the protolanguage used the associated technologies.  Two of these are *panaq, meaning 'to shoot', and *busuʀ, meaning 'bow' (as in, bow and arrow).

There are a couple of different versions given by different linguists, but they're all pretty close.  For example, Zhang Yongli's Seediq Language Reference Grammar (2000), which also lists some proto-Austronesian vocabulary, gives *buƭug for 'bow', as well as *buhug for proto-Atayalic (one of the Taiwanese sub-families of Austronesian), although *panaq is the same.  However you swing it, proto-Austronesian had words for bows and the action of shooting them.  I'm also sure proto-Malayo-Polynesian had a word for 'blowgun' (*sumpit), but I'm not so concerned about that right now (although see my earlier post on blowguns here).
Dayak with a *sumpit.  c.1920.  h/t Tropenmuseum.

We can feel pretty confident that the Austronesian speakers who migrated through the Philippines and into Indo-Malaysia and around New Guinea between the third millennium BCE and the first millennium CE shot arrows from bows, and that these bows were technologically similar to those used in Indonesia and the Pacific until relatively recently.  In Taiwan, where the Austronesian languages came from, aboriginal bows have the following characteristics:
  • They were self bows, meaning that they were made from a single piece of wood
  • They were usually no taller than the height of the archer
  • They shot long arrows without flights (i.e., feathers attached near the nock to aid stability)
  • The arrowheads were large and often of perishable materials, although there are plenty of later examples of iron ones from more recent times (see here for some modern iron arrowheads made in Wulai, Taipei County)
The standard source for this and other bits of info about aboriginal Taiwanese items is Chen Chi-lu's Material Culture of the Formosan Aborigines (Taipei: Taiwan Museum 1988), which is a brilliant resource.  Some snippets and photos can be found here, as well, on the Asian Traditional Archery Research Network page.  You can also see a rather nice photo of a modern-day Bunun archer drawing an arrow during a competition here, and a great photo from 1935 of an Atayal archer from Wulai here.  I would of course post the photos here, but they have all been copyrighted, and it's not such a hassle to go and see them in situ.

These characteristics were also shared by bows in eastern Indonesia and the Pacific.  I've previously shared images from the Collectie Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, showing bows and arrows from Alor and central Flores, which have a very similar design, and I have in my collection some photos of weapons from Tanimbar, east of Timor, which have almost exact parallels to the indigenous Taiwanese weapons - they're relatively long self bows shooting long un-fletched arrows with large points.  A Tanimbarese bow with a nicely carved nock in the Pitt Rivers Museum conforms to the same pattern.  Hunters from Seram used similar weapons as well, and I expect the pattern is the same across Indonesia.

Bows in Oceania show the same features, especially the un-fletched arrow and the simple wooden construction.  They were reasonably popular weapons in island Melanesia and were used for warfare, but in Fiji and most of Polynesia they were used only for hunting.  In Tonga the bow was most prominent as a toy, and featured in one of the games of the aristocracy - rat hunting.  An article in the very first edition (1892) of the Journal of the Polynesian Society dealt with these features, and also with the Austronesian origin of the word (and possibly concept), although the word 'Austronesian' is a neologism.

A photo I showed in an earlier post on village defense in eastern Indonesia, showing Alorese warriors with their bows.  These men probably did not speak an Austronesian language as their mother tongue, as Alor is full of non-Austronesian languages, but it'd be hard to tell unless I find the exact provenance.  Either way, self bows, long arrows.  h/t Tropenmuseum.
So I feel fairly sure that the bows used by the speakers of proto-Austronesian and their descendants used bows like these.  The interesting thing you might note is that the bows of New Guinea are also quite similar, in that the arrows are long and typically lack flights (I'm unaware of any case where they are present), the bows are self bows, and the heads are large, probably to compensate for the absence of flights - although they are famously elaborately carved and prized among collectors.

Now, several languages around and throughout New Guinea demonstrate the influence of Austronesian languages at an early stage, there was clear gene flow between Papuan and Austronesian populations, and several characteristically Austronesian features, including houses on piles and headhunting, could be found among some Papuan populations.  It might be reasonable to suggest that the bow was introduced to Indonesia and New Guinea by Austronesian speakers.  Presumably, the earlier weapon of New Guinea was the spearthrower, still used in some communities along the Sepik river.  Such spearthrowers are also sought after by collectors.

A spearthrower from the Sepik region of New Guinea.  The zoomorphic centrepiece is used to guide the thin, flexible spear, and the spur on the end on the left is used to hook the spear and thereby increase the force operating on it.  h/t

Not so fast.  I'm not sure if anyone has worked on this question in the past (perhaps they have, but I haven't seen it, and JSTOR and its equivalents are coming up empty), but what I'd like to know is if there are any hints of Austronesian loanwords in Papuan archery vocabulary.  That might help answer the question of whether these things were introduced to that part of the world by speakers of Austronesian languages, although it wouldn't be conclusive by any means.

There have been some archaeological finds from Indonesia showing that bows and arrows were possibly already known before Austronesian speakers arrived.  The Maros points, found by Ian Glover at a type site in Sulawesi, look like arrowheads to me, being the right size and shape, and they have been dated to between 5000-3000 BCE, which is far too early to be the result of Austronesian introduction.  They're made of stone, with characteristically ridged sides, which is rather different to the design of arrowheads associated with Austronesian speakers (which are organic and therefore less likely to survive over thousands of years).  You can see some examples in the British Museum, where Glover donated plenty of his finds, and I'd upload photos of them but a) the Museum doesn't like that and b) my photos don't seem to be able to upload onto blogger, for whatever reason.

Assuming the Maros points are correctly dated and actually are arrowheads, there must have been an archery tradition present in Indonesia before Austronesian speakers arrived, meaning that we can't definitively ascribe Papuan bows to Austronesian influence.  And, of course, people in New Guinea were smart enough to come up with the idea on their own.  On the other hand, the similarities are striking, and there is some evidence of Austronesian influence even in the New Guinea interior.  I'm not sure there will ever be a certain answer, given the vague linguistic and technological evidence we have to use in the absence of physical remains.

Why is this an important question?  Well, the bow is a useful and potentially revolutionary technology, so it's good to know where it came from.  It seems to have been invented only once - it was even introduced into the Americas in pre-Columbian Times through the Arctic - and its distribution is interesting in its own right.  But it can also tell us a little about prehistoric interactions in ancient Indonesia, and while it seems like a nineteenth century ethnologist's question, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to answer it.


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