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Place: New Hebrides (Vanuatu)
Category: War

wood, plant fibre, Vanuatu, l. 97.5–159 cm, Inv. Oz 1145, 1263, 1264, 1517, 1212

Arrow Malekula, Inv. Oz 1145

Humphrey No. 306 (307): ‘Two Reed or bamboo arrows with long points of hard black wood from Malecollo.’

The relatively long point of the arrow is made of a hard black wood and exhibits very deep, long fissures. It is firmly embedded in the upper part of the bamboo shaft. This upper part of the shaft, like the lower, has been bound with a flat plant fibre. Below the upper binding, there is a relatively simple incised decoration in the form of partially filled-in zigzag fields. At the lower end of the arrow, there was probably a notch which has been broken off, so that the arrow comes to a blunt end below the binding.

The Humphrey label No. 306 is still to be found on the upper binding. Similar, though not always identical arrows may be found in Oxford (Kaeppler 1978a: 249). Generally speaking, the same general comments apply to the following arrows in the Göttingen Collection: Oz 1212 , Oz 1263 , Oz 1264 and Oz 1517. Volker Harms

Arrow, Inv. Oz 1517

Humphrey No. 308/309: ‘Two ditto [Reed or bamboo arrows] with barbs on one side of the points, from the Marquesas.’

The arrow consists of a very sturdy bamboo shaft and a similarly sturdy wooden point inserted into it. The latter is rounded in the rear half and flattens into an elliptical cross-section only towards the tip. The point has fourteen sharp barbs all directed from the same side. The black surface of the point may have been caused by hardening it in the fire, because a dark mahogany tone shimmers through underneath it. For the insertion of the point into the bamboo shaft, the upper end was tightly bound with a cord twisted from several strong coconut fibres. A similar binding, which in the meantime has become loose, is also found at the rear end of the bamboo shaft.

Humphrey’s attribution ‘Marquesas’ may be incorrect (see below). It is most probable that the true origin of the arrow is the New Hebrides. Volker Harms

Two arrows, Inv. Oz 1263, Inv. Oz 1264

Humphrey No. 310/311: ‘Two ditto [Reed or bamboo arrows], the points barbed on both sides from ditto [Marquesas].’

The arrow Oz 1263 consists of two parts, not counting the bindings: the shaft made of bamboo, and the point made of a hard, black wood. The point has a series of notch-like depressions, so that starting from the bamboo shaft, it at first forms its own kind of shaft with a transition to a flat, lancet-like point with two poorly developed barbs. There is a tight binding made of a single coconut fibre strand where the point is inserted into the bamboo shaft. A similar binding is found at the end of the bamboo shaft.

The arrow can be identified beyond any doubt by the still strongly adhering Humphrey label. No. 310.

The regional attribution, however, seems very doubtful. The arrows 310 and 311 are ordered consecutively with other arrows, to which Humphrey gave the provenance ‘Malecolla’. It appears much more likely that this provenance must also apply to No. 310, because the arrow corresponds fully in form and manufacture to those known from the literature (cf. Speiser 1923: 213f., PI. 53, 54, 55) as being from the New Hebrides. Also, Plischke (1959) has already demonstrated that - at least where Cook’s voyages are concerned - there were no bows and arrows from the Marquesas, but that there is indeed evidence of them much later, although only as children’s toys.

The arrow Oz 1264 is of almost the same form. Only the point is carved differently in that, behind the lancet-shape in front with the foremost part broken off, there are nine barbs on one side and seven on the other. A Humphrey label is attached, No. 311. Regarding the arrow’s provenance, the same applies as for Oz 1263.

Arrow, Inv. Oz 1212

Humphrey No. 312 or 313: ‘Two ditto [Reed or bamboo arrows] with long smooth ends of hard black wood having sharp pointed fishes bones at the end neatly tied on, and said to be poisoned; from Malecolla, or Manicolla, one of the Hebrides Isles.’

The arrow has a typical Humphrey label, the last digit illegible due to something being stuck over it. According to the description in Humphrey’s catalogue, this can only be No. 312 or 313.

Other than that the fish-bone point is broken off at the top, the arrow is extremely well preserved. It consists of three parts: 1) the bamboo shaft, notched at the bottom and bound at the lower end with a fibre strip c. 2 mm wide; 2) an extension made of black wood set into the bamboo shaft - belonging to this, there is a (now slightly loose) binding made of a c. 1.5 mm wide fibre strip at the upper end of the bamboo shaft; and 3) the aforementioned fish-bone point, mortise-jointed with the wooden extension.

A binding made from a single carefully prepared coconut fibre holds the mortise and tenon together. The fibres still sit very tightly in place and look almost like thin copper wire.

The fish-bone point does in fact show clear traces of having been coated with a blackish-grey mass (Humphrey catalogue: ‘said to be poisoned’) with which the arrow may originally have been prepared. During the Cook expedition, the ‘toxicity’ of these arrow points had already been tested on dogs on site, although with negative results. (See e.g. Sparrman 1944: 135f.) Volker Harms


Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978a.

Plischke, Hans, ‘Bogen und Pfeil auf den Marquesas-Inseln’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1959, vol. 84, no. 1, pp. 19-24.

Sparrman, Anders, A Voyage Round the World with Captain James Cook in the H.M.S. Resolution, Huldine Beamish (trans.), London, 1944.

Speiser, Felix, Ethnographische Materialien aus den Neuen Hebriden und den Banks-Inseln, Berlin, 1923.