Sociopolitical Effects of Bow and Arrow Technology in Prehistoric Coastal California


  • Douglas J. Kennett,

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    • Douglas J. Kennett is Professor of Environmental Archaeology and Behavioral Ecology at Penn State. His interests are in human interaction with the environment, both past and present, and the development of political complexity.

  • Patricia M. Lambert,

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    • Patricia M. Lambert is Professor of Biological Anthropology and Associate Dean of Research in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. Her research primarily focuses on the causes of changing patterns of health and violence in prehistoric North and South America as seen through the lens of human skeletal remains from archeological sites.

  • John R. Johnson,

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    • John R. Johnson is Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. His career has been devoted to understanding the culture history of the Chumash Indians of south central California.

  • Brendan J. Culleton

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    • Brendan J. Culleton is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Penn State. His work focuses on issues related to prehistoric human-environment interaction in Mesoamerica and California.



Bow and arrow technology spread across California between ∼AD 250 and 1200, first appearing in the intermountain deserts of the Great Basin and later spreading to the coast. We critically evaluate the available data for the initial spread in bow and arrow technology and examine its societal effects on the well-studied Northern Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. The introduction of this technology to these islands between AD 650 and 900 appears to predate the appearance of hereditary inequality between AD 900 and 1300. We conclude, based on the available data, that this technology did not immediately trigger intergroup warfare. We argue that the introduction of the bow and arrow contributed to sociopolitical instabilities that were on the rise within the context of increasing population levels and unstable climatic conditions, which stimulated intergroup conflict and favored the development of hereditary inequality. Population aggregation and economic intensification did occur with the introduction of the bow and arrow. This observation is consistent with the hypothesis that social coercion via intra-group “law enforcement” contributed to changes in societal scale that ultimately resulted in larger groups that were favored in inter-group conflict. We argue that the interplay between intra-group “law enforcement” and inter-group warfare were both essential for the ultimate emergence of social inequality between AD 900 and 1300.