TODAY, new weapons technology spreads rapidly around the...


June 27, 1994

TODAY, new weapons technology spreads rapidly around the world, but that was not always the case. The bow and arrow, for example, first appeared in North Africa and Southern Europe 15,000 years ago, but didn't become common in Northern Europe until the ninth millennium B.C. It took some 7,000 years for the technology to spread from Italy to Sweden.

By contrast, nuclear weapons are only about 50 years old, but already they have spread to nearly every continent. And it's likely a dozen or more new members may join the nuclear club in the next millennium.

Instant communications and the wide diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge account for the difference. Still, we tend to underestimate the difficulty past civilizations faced in mastering the techniques needed to fashion even such primitive weapons as bows and arrows.

Prehistoric European bows, for example, were made of wood split from the yew tree, sometimes stiffened with splinters of antler or a backing of sinew. They were carved using primitive tools of stone, bone or shell and tapered toward nocks at the tips shaped to receive the string.

Neolithic man straightened and smoothed his arrows by passing rough shafts through a hole drilled in a piece of bone or antler. The straightened shaft was then placed in a smaller groove cut in pieces of sandstone and drawn through the hole to reduce it to a standard diameter.

Early arrowheads were made of sharpened stones, usually flint. They took the form of chisel-shaped blades or conical sections with barbs and tangs. The development of metallurgy in the Early Bronze Age led to metal arrowheads, but they were expensive and difficult to produce.

Nevertheless, by 6,000 B.C. the bow and arrow had taken its place as the most important weapon for fighting and hunting. It would retain that position until the next great revolution in weaponry -- the invention of firearms -- some 7,000 later.

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