The bow seems to have been invented in the later Paleolithic or early Mesolithic periods. The oldest signs of its use in Europe come from the Stellmoor (de) in the Ahrensburg valley (de) north of Hamburg, Germany and dates from the late Paleolithic, about 10,000–9000 BCE. The arrows were made of pine and consisted of a mainshaft and a 15–20 centimetres (5.9–7.9 inches) long fore shaft with a flint point. There are no definite earlier bows; previous pointed shafts are known, but may have been launched by spear-throwers rather than bows. The oldest bows known so far come from the Holmegård swamp in Denmark. Bows eventually replaced the spear-thrower as the predominant means for launching shafted projectiles, on every continent except Australasia, though spear-throwers persisted alongside the bow in parts of the Americas, notably Mexico and among the Inuit.

Bows and arrows have been present in Egyptian culture since its predynastic origins. In the Levant, artifacts that could be arrow-shaft straighteners are known from the Natufian culture, (c. 12,800–10,300 BP (before present)) onwards. The Khiamian and PPN A shouldered Khiam-points may well be arrowheads.

Classical civilizations, notably the Assyrians, Armenians, Persians, Parthians, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese fielded large numbers of archers in their armies. The English longbow proved its worth for the first time in Continental warfare at the Battle of Crécy. In the Americas archery was widespread at European contact.

Archery was highly developed in Asia. The Sanskrit term for archery, dhanurveda, came to refer to martial arts in general. In East Asia, Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea was well known for its regiments of exceptionally skilled archers.

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