Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

Dress, Weapons and Implements Of The Polynesians And Micronesians

Limits of Diffusion of Bow and Arrow


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Limits of Diffusion of Bow and Arrow

Bows and arrows were in Cook's time used only for hunting or in sport; and now they hardly exist in Micronesia and Polynesia. The bow of the Friendly Islands, which was only used to shoot rats, is yet a very fine weapon. It is as high as a man, beautifully made of polished firm wood, and fitted with a strong twisted string; but its companion the quiver has quite disappeared, and the number of arrows is reduced to one. The Pelew natives use, for pigeon-shooting, bows of mangrove wood with a string of fibre. In New Zealand, language indicates a former acquaintance with the weapon.

Bow and arrow

Bow and arrow from the Friendly Islands - approx 500mm long (Christy Collection).
[Click on picture for higher resolution]

Bow and arrow

In the Gilbert Islands, Paumotu, and Easter Island, bows are entirely absent; and in the Hawaiian group they appear to have been re-introduced only in the course of the present century. It is, however, incorrect to say that, owing to the gradual cessation of hunting in these islands with few animals, weapons of long range held no place in Polynesian strategy.


Next to the spear and the javelin the sling is the most frequent Micronesian weapon; slings of plaited twine, like those of Melanesia, are known in the Mortlock and Caroline Islands. Next to them come short throwing-clubs. In the Marquesas the sling made of coco-nut fibre, throwing stones, polished or angular, as big as hen's eggs, is among the most dreaded weapons. Clever slingers were in high esteem, and formed a special troop in the Tahitian army. At favourable moments they would advance beyond the mass of the host, and let fly at the enemy with loud shouts.

In many parts of Polynesia the variety of offensive weapons diverted attention from any care for defensive armour and other means of protection; battles had a ceremonial character, and the object of weapons was to make a warrior seem prouder and more terrible. Unfortunately we have no accurate description of the Tahitian equipment. The greatest value was attached to the head-dress. Among the Hawaiians this was an elegant helmet of feather-work; among the tribes of the Austral Islands, of a fantastic shape. To attack the wearer of a conspicuous head adornment was reckoned a heroic action; his fall often decided the engagement.

Hawaiian wicker-work helmet

Hawaiian wicker-work helmet - Approx 240mm top to bottom. (Berlin Museum.)

Another article of Tahitian uniform was a collar decked with feathers and shells, which served as a breastplate. Parkinson saw Gilbert Islanders ready for fight, with the hard dried skin of a ray wrapped round breast and belly under their coco-fibre armour, and on the top of all as much cordage as could be got on. They themselves, with their ray-spined spear 2O feet long, did not advance, but only stimulated the fighters. In Tonga tabu, Forster found a large flat breastplate made of a round bone, probably that of some kind of whale; it was 20 inches in diameter and beautifully polished. The Marquesan adornment of the same kind consists of pieces of a light cork-like wood, tied into a half-ring, fastened with resin, and set with red abrus-beans. Among poorer races this breastplate seems to be replaced by a shell. In the flat shell, often ground to a tooth-shape, which many Polynesians wear hanging on their breasts, we may perhaps recognise a reduced form of this.

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