Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ishi in Two Worlds: The Mongolian Release

Ishi shooting his bow. Deer Creek, Ishi Wilderness, Tehama, 1914.

Ishi in Two Worlds
Theodora Kroeber (Author), Karl Kroeber (Editor)
First published in 1961 by the Regents of the University of California
50th Anniversary Edition, 2011 (amazon)

Chapter 9:

     "For the toxophilist the most interesting thing about Ishi is his shooting of the bow.  An archer today knows the classic shooting stances, the different kinds of bows, and the historic methods of arrow release.  These are technical matters, understood within the difficult language of a special vocabulary.  The pictures of Ishi shooting his bow are more graphic of his method of handling bow and arrow than are words to the uninitiate.  Briefly, the peculiarities of Ishi's shooting were, first, that he preferred to shoot from a crouching position.  This was a matter of tribal custom and tied to the particular hunting practice of the Yana:  a hunter, hidden and crouching behind scant cover, could scarcely hope to make a kill after luring game to himself if he then had to stand up before he could shoot.  The crouch was not a cramped or disadvantageous position for shooting a bow no larger than Ishi's when held as he held it - diagonally across the front of the body, the face of the bow higher then the other limb and to the left.  We might say that Ishi shot from the hip because of the bow position.  Actually the string was drawn at cheek level.  Besides the characteristic crouch and hold, another unusual feature of Ishi's shooting was that at the instant of the arrow's release, the fingers relaxed, allowing the bow to revolve in his hand, until it [the bow] turned over completely.  To achieve this turn requires a steady hold so that the bow does not escape the hand, and a light touch, so that the revolution of the bow is not impeded.  The rhythm of motion involved is comparable to the smooth and full follow through of stroke after a tennis ball has been hit, or the completion of the arc described by a golf club and the motion of the pivot foot in a controlled but fully finished stroke.

     "Ishi's method of arrow release had this intriguing peculiarity:  it was different from any previously described release and remains to this day the only one of its kind to be found either in toxophilic literature or ethnographic literature.  It was a seemingly Yahi, or rather Yana, variant of the Mongolian or Asiatic release, which is one of the five great classes of arrow releases for the world, but one never otherwise reported for native America.  The Mongolian release is expectably used for shooting the composite bow with the aid of a thumb ring, since it is the flexed thumb which accomplishes the pull, the fingers being used only to guide and support the arrow.  Ishi used no thumb guard or ring, and his bow was a simple, not a composite one.  His thumb became sore and swollen with prolonged target practice, but never in the course of hunting.  Ishi drew the bow with the flexed right thumb as in the classic Mongolian release.  The Yana variation was in one finger position:  the tip of the middle finger was placed lightly against the thumbnail to steady and strengthen its hold.

     "The question is, how did it happen that the Yana shot their simple bow differently from all other bowmen, and that their arrow release, alone in America, is a variant of the Mongolian release?  We do not know the answer.  It could be that when Ishi's ancestors started on their long forgotten migratory wanderings out of Asia, they took with them the simple bow which they had become accustomed to shoot as Ishi shot his bow; and that this was in a time before the composite bow and the thumb ring had yet been invented.  Such historical reconstruction carries us back into prehistory, and to a dry land crossing from Asia to America."

Blog note:  Research at UC Berkeley indicates that the arrow points made by Ishi where closer to Nomlaki or Wintu points.  It is therefore possible that Ishi had ancestry from Nomlaki and/or Wintu ancestors as well as the Yahi ancestors from which he acquired his lanugage.  Nomlaki and Wintu speak a Penutian language whereas the Yahi spoke a Yana language which is classified within the Hokan language group.

Related Papers:

DNA analysis of an early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, China
Qiaomei Fu, Matthias Meyer, Xing Gao, Udo Stenzel, Hernán A. Burbano, Janet Kelso, Svante Pääbo
PNAS January 22, 2012

The Structure of Diversity within New World Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups: Implications for the Prehistory of North America
Ripan S. Malhi, Jason A. Eshleman, Jonathan A. Greenberg, Deborah A. Weiss, Beth A. Schultz Shook, Frederika A. Kaestle, Joseph G. Lorenz, Brian M. Kemp, John R. Johnson, David Glenn Smith
Am J Hum Genet. 2002 July


  1. Very interesting!

    My guess is that as well as crouching in order to ambush prey, and thus forcing the shooter to hold the bow diagonally, that by doing so, it also allows for binocular vision of the flight trajectory - hence more accurate targeting!

  2. Hi Paul,

    I had to look up what you meant by "binocular vision of the flight trajectory." It seems that binocular vision is a general problem in archery. You are right that the tilted bow allows for better vision from the left eye:

  3. BTW, it's long been a pet theory of mine that Bow Hunting by East Asians has resulted in their flat faces.

    I prove it as follows:
    1. Bow hunting is earliest attested in East Asia
    2. Using the bow optimally requires excellent binocular vision
    3. Binocular vision is impeded by having a large nose or protruding mid-face - as it creates a barrier between the bow and the eyes, and thus introduces some image distortion.
    4. So selection for a smaller nose/nasal bridge would result in a flatter face

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  5. Well, many people from Asia do not have flat faces, so I think we would be wading into the deep end there! There are several beautiful profile photographs of Ishi that show that his face wasn't particularly flat.

    In any case, you are not the only one that thinks that bow hunting developed in East Asia. I am not sure if it developed only in East Asia, but I would say that East Asia is probably one of the centers of early development. I ran across a very interesting paper in the last few days that argues that the bow was developed from fishing net technology. I'll post it. That would jibe well with the finding that the Tianjuan human of 40,000 years ago ate primarily fresh water fish.

    I've also wondered if primitive stringed instruments such as the Dagomba single stringed guitar, and the Asian two stringed such as the erhu weren't bi-products of the development of the bow.

  6. sorry, meant to say "Asian two stringed *instruments* such as the erhu . . ."

  7. Marnie,

    Oh I wasn't suggesting that Ishi was stereotypically East Asian looking - just making a general comment on Bow Hunting and it's probable origins.

    IMO, you are undoubtedly correct that the evolution of the many one stringed instruments from the hunting bow. Here is a Chinese one stringed instrument:

    The bow was also used for fire starting early on too - as in the Bow Drill - not sure how old that is though

  8. Yep, I agree about the fire drill. I think it is very old. I've seen some film clips of very isolated Nilotic people on the Upper Nile using a fire drill.

    There's a lot of evidence of fire at the Chauvet Cave, (32,000 kya) so the fire drill is probably at least that old and probably much older.

    The paper I just posted on the development of bow technology in East Asia also mentions the relationship between basket weaving and the bow. The ability to manufacture string from sinew or fibrous plants would have been essential to the manufacture of nets, the fire drill, the bow, baskets and stringed instruments. All modern human groups seem to have figured this out. There are very well developed basket making traditions in West Africa, East Asia and the Americas, so sinew and string making must have developed in the early the Palaeolithic.

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  10. Ooops, just thought of other products that need sinew: drums, boots, clothing.


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