Saturday, October 20, 2018

How the Bow and Arrow Caused the Neolithic and Agricultural Revolutions

        A Reconstruction of Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia Mounds Today in Illinois near St. Louis

The Chaco Canyon Great Houses of the Anasazi People in New Mexico

A Prehistoric Cave Picture of Hunters with Bow and Arrow

If the scale of human non-kin social cooperation depends on the range and effectiveness of the weapons for law enforcement, then we can predict that the invention of the bow and arrow expanded social cooperation beyond what was possible with the atlatl.  This can be seen in the archaeological record of prehistoric North America, where the introduction of the bow (AD 300-700) was followed by a great increase in the size and complexity of Native American societies, which is called the North American Neolithic transition.  The introduction of the bow also preceded the much earlier Neolithic transition to sedentary villages in Eurasia around 11,000 BCE in the Natufian culture in the Levant of the southeastern Mediterranean basin (Bingham and Souza 2009; Bar-Yosef 1998).

Bows are more accurate than atlatls, and it is easier to learn to shoot arrows consistently than to throw atlatls consistently (Bettinger 2013; Cattelain 1997; Whittaker 2013).  You can see this by watching some of the videos of people demonstrating the throwing of atlatls, and they show that it's much harder to control the trajectory of an atlatl than to control the flight of an arrow shot from a bow. It is also easier to repeatedly shoot a volley of arrows at a target than to repeatedly throw atlatls.

When our prehistoric ancestors shifted from using atlatls to using bows, they probably doubled or even tripled their success in using their weapons to hunt animals or kill other humans.  Locke's "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right to punish those who violate the customary norms of social cooperation--became more effective with the bow as a weapon of enforcement.  According to the "social coercion theory" of Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza (2009, 2013), we should see archaeological evidence for increasing scale and complexity of social cooperation after the introduction of the bow, because this weapon improves the credible treat of violent coercion to punish cheaters, free-riders, or social parasites, thus suppressing conflicts of interest to sustain cooperation.

The bow appears for the first time in Southwest Eurasia about 14 thousand years ago (kya), in Europe and in far northern North America about 12 kya.  In North America, the bow spread slowly from north to south.  It did not appear in the southern regions of North America (what is now the United States) until about 200 to 700 AD (Blitz 1988; Maschner and Mason 2013).  This global pattern in the spread of the bow constitutes a natural laboratory experiment.  In principle, we should be able to test the prediction of social coercion theory that the introduction of the bow will be followed by increased social complexity and scale as people settle into villages, engage in complex market exchange, begin domesticating plants and animals, and then later practice extensive field agriculture.

An alternative to the social coercion theory is the warfare theory, which says that the introduction of the bow led to increased warfare between groups, and then there was increased social complexity and economic intensification as a response to the demands of increased warfare.  According to social coercion theory, increased warfare is an effect rather than a cause of the increased social and economic complexity that is caused by the increased effectiveness of the bow as weaponry for enforcing intense social cooperation within a group.  We should be able to see whether the introduction of the bow leads first to increased social and economic complexity followed by increased warfare, which is the prediction of social coercion theory.

The problem, however, is that the archaeological record for dating the appearance of the bow and arrow is often unclear.  Wooden bows and arrows are likely to decay over thousands of years.  Often the stone points are the only surviving evidence.  But then it can be hard to distinguish arrowheads from atlatl dart tips.

The solution to this problem is to measure the length, width, thickness, and weight of the stone points, and then develop standards for distinguishing atlatl dart tips from arrowheads based on these quantitative measurements.  Arrowheads tend to be smaller, thinner, and lighter than atlatl dart points. 

Projectile Points from Prehistoric Mississippi and Alabama: a. Late Arrow Points (Hamilton/Madison Type); b. Early Arrow Points (Baker's Creek Type); c. Dart Points (Copena Type) (Blitz and Porth 2013)

The best way to see the evolution of these artifacts over thousands of years of prehistoric North America is to look at Noel Justice's three books on stone age spear and arrow points in the United States, which describe, date, and categorize the prehistoric stone points, along with beautiful photographs (Justice 1988, 2002a, 2002b).

In 2012, there was a widely publicized report in Nature about the discovery of stone tools dating to 71,000 years ago at the Pinnacle Point prehistoric site in South Africa.  Some of these microliths appeared to be projectile points.  One commentator said that this showed that the bow and arrow was used by people in Africa as early as 71,000 years ago (McBrearty 2012).  But the authors of the report said that these stone points could have been used to tip atlatl darts rather than arrows (Brown et al. 2012, p. 592).  So, as far as I know, there is no clear evidence for arrowheads older than about 14,000 years ago.  (I would be happy to hear from anyone who knows about evidence for an older date.)

I have written (here) about the earliest Neolithic Transitions in ancient Mesopotamia, in which sedentary hamlets become larger villages that domesticated plants and animals for farming, which was followed by fixed field agriculture and then archaic states centered in the first cities (such as Uruk).  I said nothing there about the possible importance of the bow in those transitions.

The archaeological records of the Neolithic revolutions in Eurasia are difficult to study, because they are eight to eleven thousand years old, and over time the records decay or even totally disappear.  By contrast, the archaeological records of the Native Americans of North America provide an almost perfect natural laboratory.  The bow was introduced into this region relatively recently--between 100 and 700 AD in the continental United States.  The archaeological studies of this region are well-developed.  And it is such a large and ecologically diverse region that one can study adaptations for variable environmental settings.  

Bingham and Souza argue that this prehistoric North American record supports their social coercion theory in showing how the introduction of the bow caused an increase in social complexity that sparked the Neolithic revolutions in North America (Bingham and Souza 2009, 360-399; Bingham, Souza, and Blitz 2013; Bingham and Souza 2013).

Consider the consequences of the introduction of the bow into the ancient American Southwest (Bingham and Souza 2009, 376-78; Bingham and Souza 2013; Reed and Geib 2013; VanPool and O'Brien 2013). Four thousands of years, Native Americans in the Southwest lived as nomadic foragers hunting with atlatls and horticulturists who cultivated maize.  Then, the earliest evidence for the use of bows appeared from 100 AD to 400 AD.  From 400 AD to 525 AD, they began to show the Anasazi culture: they lived a more sedentary life in villages, they expanded their use of pottery, and they brought large areas of land under agricultural cultivation.  By 600 AD, they were accumulating enough stored grain to feed themselves for two to four years, and they thus generated a surplus to support extensive trade. By 900 AD, they were living in large blocks of apartment-like structures, showing a new scale of social complexity and economic intensification.  The famous Pueblo Bonito massive buildings in Chaco Canyon (in Northwest New Mexico) were built.  Eventually, thousands of people were living here, with hundreds of acres of land for the cultivation of maize watered by a complex system of irrigation.  This is what happens, Bingham and Souza argue, when a new weapon like the bow extends the range of law enforcement and thus expands social cooperation.

A similar historical pattern appeared in the mid-continental United States where the introduction of the bow around 600 AD preceded the emergence of the Mississippian cultures beginning around 800 AD (Bingham and Souza 2009, 378-79; 2013; Blitz and Porth 2013)  The Mississippian culture was a mound-building civilization that began in the Mississippi River Valley and then spread across the Midwest and the Upland South.  It prevailed across a series of urban settlements and villages linked together by trading networks extending as far west as the Rockies.  The largest city was Cahokia, located east of what is now East St. Louis, Illinois.  Cahokia was probably the largest urban settlement in North America north of Mexico.  The second largest urban settlement was in Moundsville, near what is today Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The most prominent archaeological record of the Mississippian culture is in the huge earthern pyramid mounds that seem to have been sites for temples and religious ceremonies as well as houses and burial buildings.  The Mississippians practiced large-scale and intensive maize agriculture that sustained their large populations and complex economies of exchange and specialization.

The one driving cause for this increase in social and economic complexity in the Mississippian culture, Bingham argues, was the development of the bow as a weapon that could enforce expanded social cooperation.  Even if we see some evidence that the bow was one cause for this, however, we might object that surely there were other causes as well, and so Bingham's theory suffers from being too simplistic.

For example, the prominence of the Mississippian mounds as structures built for religious rituals points to the importance of religious belief as a primary factor in supporting the evolution of social cooperation among tens of thousands of people who were not kin and who were largely anonymous to one another.  Shared religious beliefs and rituals seemed to have been crucial for binding these people together in moral communities.  Some anthropologists have claimed that the Neolithic transition to agricultural civilization required changes in religious beliefs that would hold people together in large religious communities (Cauvin and Watkins 2000).

Some evolutionary anthropologists have argued that the cultural evolution of prosocial religions was one of the major causes for the cultural evolution of large agrarian states.  The beliefs and practices of these religions promoted social cooperation in large communities based on the shared belief in a morality enforced by an all-powerful and moralistic God.  Like Darwin, they see this cultural evolution as driven by group selection in war:  groups with prosocial religions were stronger than groups without such religions.  I have written about this in a previous post (here).

But to say that religious belief was a primary cause for the Neolithic transitions, Bingham complains, is to confuse effect for cause or proximate for ultimate causation.  From the point of view of Darwinian evolutionary science, beliefs are merely the proximate tools for carrying out evolved behavioral strategies for individual self-interest.  The social cooperation of non-kin requires social coercion through the credible threat of violence against cheaters and free-riders.  A new weapon like the bow and arrow allows this social coercion to expand to the scale of large Neolithic communities.  Religious belief can then become a mere means in human proximate psychology for motivating the cooperative behavior demanded by social coercion.

Through out most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in small foraging bands where everyone knew everyone else.  They shared information about the world, including their social world, which held them together as a mutually informed social group. They monitored one another's conduct.  They were vigilant in punishing misbehavior and thus enforcing a shared belief system that included the social contract--the customary norms for conduct.

But then as social groups grew in size during the Neolithic transition, people were connected to too many people to know them all well; and so they could not monitor what everyone was doing and thinking.  They could not sustain their social identity as a mutually informed social group through the face-to-face interactions of people personally known to one another.

The solution to this problem was to bring together large collections of people to engage in ritual celebrations--perhaps at a temple complex on top of a sacred mound--where people would be required to profess their loyalty to a communal belief system.  Anyone suggesting any doubt in this belief system would be ostracized.  Affirming this belief system simultaneously bound the members of the community into a social unit and cut them off from members of any competing communities.

Such a belief system, Bingham observes, would include three kinds of beliefs.  There would be pragmatic beliefs about the material world pertinent to adaptive activities--such as foraging, hunting, farming, and so on.  There would be social contract beliefs about the customary norms of social conduct for the community--such as not stealing property or not murdering other members of the community.  And there would be identifier beliefs that distinguish the members of one community from those of other communities.

The first two kinds of belief--pragmatic and social contract beliefs--can be empirically verifiable by reference to our experience of the material and social worlds.  But the identifier beliefs may be so obscure and esoteric that they have no verifiable reference to the ordinary world of human experience.  This includes beliefs about the gods and spirits--about a world of invisible powers beyond the visible world.  These beliefs are purely self-referential, with no reference to the real world, because their purpose is not to help us navigate our way in the material and social world but to identify us as set apart from and against them.  (Today, we see such xenophobic identifier beliefs expressed in fascist and populist political movements.)

Bingham identifies his own identifier beliefs as those of the scientific atheists, who believe that the belief system predominant in a modern liberal democratic society should be secular scientific materialism, which allows people to doubt or deny religious beliefs without fear of punishment, and which requires that the political order of a modern society should promote and respect the scientific pursuit of truth based on reason rather than revelation.

We might wonder, however, whether a predominantly secular civilization is possible?  Or does the social prevalence of scientific atheism subvert the moral order of human life by denying its grounding in religious belief?  Is a society of atheists impossible?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved human nature?

We can think about such questions by considering the implications of the scientific atheism proclaimed by celebrated scientists like Stephen Hawking.  My next post will be on Hawking's posthumously published book--Brief Answers to the Big Questions. 


Bar-Yosef, Ofer. 1998. "The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture." Evolutionary Anthropology 6: 159-177.

Bettinger, Robert L. 2013. "Effects of the Bow on Social Organization in Western North America." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 118-123.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2009. Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2013. "Theory Testing in Prehistoric North America: Fruits of One of the World's Great Archeological Natural Laboratories." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 145-153.

Bingham, Paul, Joanne Souza, and John H. Blitz. 2013. "Social Complexity and the Bow in the Prehistoric North American Record." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 81-88.

Blitz, John H. 1988. "Adoption of the Bow in Prehistoric North America." North American Archaeologist 9: 123-145.

Blitz, John H., and Erik S. Porth. 2013. "Social Complexity and the Bow in the Eastern Woodlands." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 89-96.

Brown, Kyle S., et al. 2012. "An Early and Enduring Advanced Technology Originating 71,000 Years Ago in South Africa." Nature 491: 590-593.

Cattelain, Pierre. 1997. "Hunting During the Upper Paleolithic: Bow, Spearthrower, or Both?" In Heidi Knecht, ed., Projectile Technology, 213-240. New York: Plenum Press.

Cauvin, J., and T. Watkins. 2000. The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Justice, Noel. 1988. Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Justice, Noel. 2002a. Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of California and the Great Basin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Justice, Noel. 2002b. Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Southwestern United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McBrearty, Sally. 2012. "Sharpening the Mind." Nature 491: 531-532.

Maschner, Herbert, and Owen K. Mason. 2013. "The Bow and Arrow in Northern North America." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 133-138.

Reed, Paul F., and Phil R. Geib. 2012. "Sedentism, Social Change, Warfare, and the Bow in the Ancient Pueblo Southwest." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 103-110.

VanPool, Todd L., and Michael J. O'Brien. 2013. "Sociopolitical Complexity and the Bow and Arrow in the American Southwest." Evolutionary Anthropology 22: 111-117.

Whittaker, John C. 2013. "Comparing Atlatls and Bows: Accuracy and Learning Curve." Ethnoarchaeology 5: 100-111.

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