I’m probably the last person to get the memo that you can fire a harpoon with a bow and arrow. In fact, I only just got my head around firing a harpoon with an atlatl. Anyway, take a squint at the picture above – the figure in the lower left background is clearly shooting a harpoon-arrow from his bow. The picture is from about 1850 and is a pencil drawing of a scene at The Dalles, on the Columbia River. I’ll take a closer look at this picture below.
In the detail above, you can see more clearly that the boy is standing on a rock above an eddy, aiming straight down. Presumably the tactic is to wait motionless until a fish swims underneath, allowing him to aim with less concern for the refraction of the water. Then the typical advantages of the bow and arrow come into play: high velocity and an almost motionless release (slight motion of fingertips) allow the fish precious little time to react before it is skewered.
The full text of the caption for the above image is:
Flat Head. Hoogst-ah-a, second chief of the tribe, with a blanket wrapped around him; A Flathead woman, wife of the Chief, basketing salmon, at the Dalles, on the Columbia River; A Flathead boy, shooting salmon with his harpoon arrows, as they are passing the Dalles.
The picture is a pencil drawing by George Catlin, a well-known 19th century artist of the west, especially those showing Native Americans. It is from one of his lesser known books, the magisterially-titled (yet apparently self-published) “Souvenir of the N.American Indians as they were in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, A numerous and noble Race of Human Beings fast passing to extinction leaving no Monuments or Records of their own in existence”. That’s a mouthful, mostly of balderdash. If you don’t happen to have your copy handy, you can view the whole thing at the New York Public Library website here. The NYPL website actually has a lot of interesting documents on file including scans of rare books, postcards, ephemera and the like. I’ve got tons of bookmarks to materials from it. The new beta search engine is good, but the old one is somewhat simpler to use and easier to access captions – work outwards from here, for example. They also allow searches to be persistent – I bookmarked this page over three years ago and it still works.
Anyway, in the above image detail (original here) you can see the same boy, identified by the name “Yun-ne-yow (the Green Vine the Creeps[?])” posing with his bow and harpoon-arrow. The lanyard is attached to about 1/4 of the way along the arrow from the tip, and is tied off at one end of the bow. He has it sort of casually wrapped around the bow presumably as a way to keep from tripping on the lanyard — it’s a nice human touch. I’m calling this rig a harpoon even though the arrow-head doesn’t detach, if any of you weapons types wants to correct me then go ahead. Basically it is an arrow with a string tied onto it and shows that you don’t always have to overthink your technology.
An interesting aspect of this system is that archaeologically, we might normally only recover a stone “arrowhead”, and ascribe it perhaps to land-mammal hunting. It’d be a bold archaeologist who started routinely cataloguing small triangular, stemmed or side-notched late period flaked stone points as harpoon-heads! But, if memory serves me well, some of the famous sites at the Dalles are chock-full of small “arrowheads” – as in, ridiculously high densities of these. Virginia Butler quotes an estimate that one collector dug up over 150,000 of these. I’m not really a bold archaeologist so I’m going to leave it at that.
If know a lot about the Dalles, have an opinion on harpoon-arrows, or are just pretty bold, then feel free to add some comments below.
The full text of the caption of the above picture is:
Flat Head. Ya-tax-ta-coo, a Flathead (Chinook) warrior; Yun-ne-yow (the Green Vine the Creeps), a boy with his salmon bow; Chinook woman, with her infant undergoing the process of flattening the head.
Now you might be wondering if such a device would actually work, and as usual in this modern age, dear reader, the answer lies on Youtube.