Evidence #181 | April 12, 2021

Bow and Arrow

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Increasing evidence suggests that the bow and arrow were known and used in Mesoamerican warfare during the time of the Book of Mormon.

The Bow in Book of Mormon Warfare

Nephite writers frequently mention the bow and arrow as a significant weapon in the arsenal of warfare in their day. During the early days of the Nephites, Enos wrote that Lamanites were skilled in the use of the bow and other weapons (Enos 1:20). A generation later, his son Jarom recorded that the Nephite weapons included “the sharp pointed arrow and the quiver” (Jarom 1:8).

Subsequent writers also mentioned the bow and arrow in their accounts of warfare, suggesting that the weapon continued to see significant use among Book of Mormon peoples (Mosiah 9:16; 10:8; Alma 2:12; 3:5; 17:7; 43:20; 44:8; 49:19, 22, 24; Helaman 1:14; 16:2, 6). Finally, Mormon described the Lamanite use of the bow and the arrow at the final Nephite-Lamanite battle at Cumorah (Mormon 6:9).

Alma's Captains, by James Fullmer.

Some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that references to the bow and arrow during the time of the Book of Mormon are anachronistic. It was thought that the bow was not introduced into pre-Columbian cultures until hundreds of years after the Nephites were destroyed.1 However, archaeological evidence suggests that this weapon was known and used in ancient Mesoamerica much earlier than previously supposed.2

Advantages of the Bow and Arrow

Concerning the strategic advantages that the bow and arrow provided in an ancient Maya warfare, one set of researchers have written,

Bows and arrows are considered area weapons, which are more effective than individual weapons because they allow massive fire by great numbers of participants. The bow and arrow are easier to operate and with greater accuracy than weapons such as the atlatl, allowing for greater numbers of less-trained participants in conflict. Bows and arrows are light in weight, which brings the advantage of high mobility during military campaigns. Use of bows and arrows also allows for more concentrated fire, resulting in greater damage. Moreover, arrows are faster than previous weapons used by the Maya, and they cause damage by penetration, which results in more life-threatening injuries. Another benefit is the ability to collect, and reuse spent arrows; arrowheads are practical to produce and do not require a specialist manufacturer.3

Evidence from the Spanish Conquest

The bow and arrow were known and used by the Aztec and the Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest.4 Experiments with American Indian bows suggest that they had ranges of between 90–180 meters (300–600 feet).5 According the Ross Hassig, an authority on Mesoamerican warfare, “the stone points normally used on Aztec arrows were the equal to steel points. Obsidian points are markedly superior in penetrating animal tissue, by approximately threefold, the result of the superior cutting edges of the glasslike obsidian, the serrated edges of the points, and their conoidal shape.”6 It is estimated that on average, the Aztec archer could carry about twenty arrows in their quiver.7

While some bows may have been relatively weak weapons, historical data suggests that other pre-Columbian bows were quite deadly and effective in warfare. In the region of Tabasco and Chiapas, Bernal Diaz and his men were opposed by native archers who were “formidable warriors, using very large and strong bows.”8

These appear to have been a different kind of bow from those Diaz faced in his previous engagements with the Maya and the Aztecs. “I must observe that these are the strongest archers that I ever met with, for they drive their arrows through two suits of cotton mail well quilted; which is a wonderful force.”9 According to Fray Geronimo Mendieta archers in Tehuacan were so skilled that they could fire two or three arrows at once as effectively as if they had shot only one.10

Depiction of Aztec rulers with bows and arrows from the Florentine Codex. 

Evidence for the Early Bow

Anthropologists including archaeologists sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between projectile points which were used for arrows as opposed to longer darts or spears. In general, arrow heads would need to be smaller than other points to be most effective. One study of the question concluded that points between 30–67 mm. (3–6.7 cm.) in length could have been used for arrow points or spear points.11 While the use of the bow and arrow at the time of the Spanish Conquest is well known, there has been uncertainty as to when these weapons were introduced into ancient Mesoamerican. Many scholars have held that this did not happen until the Post Classic Period (after AD 900).12

Recently, however, archaeologists have found evidence that the bow and arrow were used in Mesoamerican warfare much earlier. During the Late Classic Period in the Maya Lowlands (AD 600–900), the fortified Maya site of Aguateca in Guatemala was overwhelmed in a siege which left numerous obsidian and chert projectile points (averaging between 2.5–4 cm.) scattered in homes and other ruined structures.

Various Maya weapon points. Imave via Kazuo Aoyama, “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons: Spear, Dart, and Arrow Points of Aguateca and Copan,” Ancient Mesoamerica 16 (2005).

Analysis of these sharp stone fragments by archaeologist Kazuo Aoyama revealed that many of them were arrow points.13 Additional analysis of obsidian and chert points at the site of Copan yielded similar findings, showing that arrow points were present by the Early Classic period at that site (AD 400–600), indicating that “the bow and arrow would have existed in the Maya Lowlands earlier than has been previously suggested.”14

Although this is the earliest proven date for the bow and arrow in the Maya region, similar points have also been discovered by archaeologists from sites in Central Mexico. According to Aoyama, “We should also note that notched prismatic blade points made from Pachuca green obsidian were present in the Valley of Oaxaca beginning in the Middle Formative period.”15

George Vaillant found projectile points at the Pre-Classic sites of Zacatenco and Ticoman in the Valley of Mexico which he concluded were likely arrow heads.16 He also recovered an inscription from a trench dating to the Teotihuacan Period (AD 1–350) “seemingly of man holding a bow and arrow.”17 Other archaeologists have identified small projectile points from the Tehuacan Valley at Pre-Classic and Early Classic sites which appear to be arrowheads, some of which date to “about the time of Christ.”18 They also identified several arrow shafts from contexts dated to AD 400–700 in the same region.19

Conclusion

Although there is still much to learn about the early use of the Mesoamerican bow and arrow, evidence thus far provides reason to be optimistic about future research and discoveries. At present, this evidence consists primarily of chert and obsidian projectile points identified by archaeologists as those used for arrows. Once considered to have been introduced only a few hundred years before the Spanish arrival, it is now believed that the bow and arrow were used in several regions of Central Mexico at sites dating to Book of Mormon times, as well as in the Maya Lowlands as early as AD 400. This trajectory of earlier dating lends credibility to the Book of Mormon’s description of bows and arrows in military contexts.  

William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 365–399.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 413–414.

Enos 1:20Jarom 1:8Mosiah 9:16Mosiah 10:8Alma 2:12Alma 3:5Alma 17:7Alma 43:20Alma 44:8Alma 49:19Alma 49:22Alma 49:24Helaman 1:14Helaman 16:2Helaman 16:6Mormon 6:9

Enos 1:20

Jarom 1:8

Mosiah 9:16

Mosiah 10:8

Alma 2:12

Alma 3:5

Alma 17:7

Alma 43:20

Alma 44:8

Alma 49:19

Alma 49:22

Alma 49:24

Helaman 1:14

Helaman 16:2

Helaman 16:6

Mormon 6:9

  • 1 “The arrow is six hundred years too late to enter into the Book of Mormon picture.” Gordon H. Fraser, Joseph and the Golden Plates: A Close Look at the Book of Mormon (Eugene, OR: Industrial Litho, 1978), 60.
  • 2 William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 365–399; John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 413–414.
  • 3 Prudence M. Rice, Don S. Rice, Timothy W. Pugh, and Romulo Sanchez Polo, “Defensive Architecture and the Context of Warfare at Zacpeten,” in The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Peten, Guatemala, ed., Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice (Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2009), 136.
  • 4 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 79–80; David Webster, “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War,” Journal of World Prehistory, 14, no. 1 (2000): 66, 79; Prudence M. Rice, Don S. Rice, Timothy W. Pugh, and Romulo Sanchez Polo, “Defensive Architecture and the Context of Warfare at Zacpeten,” 130–131.
  • 5 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 80.
  • 6 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 80.
  • 7 Ross, Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 138.
  • 8 Maurice Keatinge, trans., The True History of the Conquest of Mexico written in the year 1568 by Captain Bernal Diaz del Castillo (New York, NY: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1927), 426.
  • 9 Keatinge, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, 413.
  • 10 Geronimo de Mendieta, Historia Eclesiastica Indiana (Mexico: Salvador Chavez Hayhoe, 1945), 1:142–143; Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 80.
  • 11 Jim Browne, “Projectile Points,” American Antiquity 5, no. 3 (January 1940): 210.
  • 12 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 183n.7.
  • 13 Kazuo Aoyama, Elite Craft Producers, Artists, and Warriors at Aguateca: Lithic Analysis, 2 vols (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2009), 2:120–122; Kazuo Aoyama, “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons: Spear, Dart, and Arrow Points of Aguateca and Copan,” Ancient Mesoamerica 16 (2005): 294–297.
  • 14 Aoyama, “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons,” 300.
  • 15 Aoyama, “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons,” 294. William J. Parry, Chipped Stone Tools in Formative Oaxaca, Mexico: Their Procurement, Production and Use (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, Memoirs no. 20, 1987), 41–44.
  • 16 George C. Vaillant, Excavations at Ticoman (New York City, NY: American Museum of Natural History, 1931), 301–302, 163, 407.
  • 17 The graffito is reproduced by Paul Tolstoy in “Utilitarian Artifacts of Central Mexico,” in Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part I: Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal (Auston, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971), 10:283. The image is reproduced by Tolstoy on 281–282, Figure 3q. While far from conclusive on its own, the representation of the bow and arrow is consistent with archaeological examples of arrow points discussed by Vaillant at Zacatenco and Ticoman in the same region.
  • 18 Richard S. MacNeish, Atoinette Nelken-Terner, and Irmgard W. Johnson, The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley Volume Two: Nonceramic Artifacts (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1967), 55, 72–76.
  • 19 MacNeish, Nelken-Terner, and Johnson, The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley, 161.
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