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Learning Process: The Bow in Question

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 27 May 2015

The double life of wooden bow habou-numa from Lake Kopiago.

Bow from Lake Kopiago BB

Bow from Lake Kopiago BB
Photographer: J Peter White © J Peter White

Learning Process is a blog series containing stories about practical solutions and technologies in indigenous cultures, past and present.

The people and culture of New Guinea experienced changes and, over time, developed novel solutions to usual needs such as food, shelter, tools as well as family, village and communal life. The pace and magnitude of changes were different to their European counterparts and Asian neighbours. Thus when European explorers and traders entered New Guinea Highlands in the 1930s, local culture appeared to them deceptively frozen in time.

The studies of New Guinea cultures made major contributions to ethnography, archaeology and linguistics in our region and social sciences in general. Western scholars were fascinated and intrigued by the cultural richness and complexity in this heart of Melanesia.

Dr J Peter White, an Australian archaeologist, among his other projects, made fruitful observations of men from the Highlands making and using stone tools, at the time when such long-standing technical expertise vanished, almost completely, from the most remote communities around the world. The wooden bow from Lake Kopiago is an instructive example of White’s research and also an object’s history, quite unusual in its conception and final resting place.

Five years after Americans landed on the Moon (1969), people at Lake Kopiago still hunted with bows and arrows, but not make them with stone tools, perhaps for a generation. In 1973 the group of five Yuna (Duna- speaking) men agreed to make a bow and some 14 arrows with stone tools to demonstrate this ancient essential technology. “It takes 2-3 weeks to make a proper bow – they told Peter – bows last at least two years.” They would be discarded afterwards.

The bow came to existence in front of Peter’s watchful gaze and his camera. When the sizable piece of timber was shaped by chopping with stone axes it was time for fine craftwork. “The work on the bow went solidly from 10am to 3.35pm. Four people scraped at various times, but Teunama was the main worker …. At the end, the bow is ready to have notches cut for string” – observed Peter in his field journal.

Peter brought the bow back to Sydney where it has remained ever since. This year it was brought to light again, when with some 200 stone tools (assembled in three different locations and production events) he generously donated it to the Australian Museum.

Jordan Cavanough, postgraduate student in the Museum Studies at Sydney University put the bow through the acquisition process to become an official “resident” in the Museum’s large collection of Melanesian artefacts. In accordance with Museum practice the bow was fumigated, numbered, measured, photographed, written in the acquisition book and entered into the electronic database. From now on it will rest in cool dark storage as the material evidence of old, and nearly forgotten, technology. And it is a rare example of a fully functional bow, made not for hunting, but to share knowledge.

Prepared by Jordan Cavanough and Stan Florek