May 4, 2014

Portuguese hemp strings: oldest evidence of the plant in Europe

Hemp has been widely used through history both for its great versatility: recreational drug, medicine, raw material for strings, cloth, paper and a lot of other uses. It is believed that the plant was first domesticated in China, maybe Taiwan, and its use in East Asia is widely documented. However there is only limited evidence on when it reached Europe, even if it was clearly known in Antiquity. 

The finding of hemp strings attached to a Palmela point and preserved thanks to the oxidization of copper (which is toxic) represents the oldest safe evidence for its use in Europe, dating to the Chalcolithic period ("last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC").

This amazing discovery took place at the Bela Vista 5 enclosure. A formal study is expected to be published soon. 

Source: Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures.

Fig. 2.A. The three sizes of Palmela points.
Update (May 6): Bell Beaker Blogger points me to a most interesting experimental study (Carmen Gutiérrez Saez et al. 2010, in Spanish, freely accessible), where it is demonstrated that copper Palmela points were very effective as arrow points when properly forged (no recooking) and installed in the shaft (to 1/3 of the blade), at the very least the small and medium sizes. Smaller sizes were better for long distance shooting, whole larger ones for short distance damage (ensuring the kill).

He also mentions that the hemp would have made an excellent string for these bows, which were, based on prehistoric evidence, true longbows.

Palmela points were used together with flint ones, usually lighter, what is at the origin of the doubts on their effectiveness.


  1. This is big, big news.

    If you google "Flemish bow strings" or "Welsh longbows" you get an idea of just how high ancient bows could be torqued up with hemp strings. The propagation of hardened steel over iron in Western Europe is a direct result of these bows.
    It may also show that the Palmela point was more likely an arrowhead, not a javelinhead.

    1. I've always thought of them as arrow points because arrow points (often flint ones) are widely cited in the literature regarding Chalcolithic SW Europe. It seems that bow and arrow was the weapon of choice of Megalithic peoples. However I may be wrong because, now that I notice the Palmela points are rather large (~5cm from point to greatest width) and later in time (Iron Age) the typical Iberian war equipment often consisted of two javelins and a short sword (equipment that was still used in the Late Middle Ages by the almogavars with great effectiveness).

      The fact that it was placed on top of a string actually says nothing about its use. Do you really think that it can be for an arrow being so large?

  2. Absolutely. Here's a recent paper that tested the hypothesis using a 35 lb bow with the smaller grain palmela broadheads. "Puntas de palmela: procesos tecnológicos y experimentación" Gutierrez Saez et al, 2010.

    Medieval longbows typically reached 110-140 lb range with hemp and flax braid. Even a light yew bow from the period would be in the 90-100 lb range.

    1. Fascinating. I did not know almost anything about these points... until now. Thanks to you. :)

      I notice that the size of the bows used (based on prehistorical evidence) is 160-190 cm. That's a longbow, right? If so, we are talking of such terribly effective (albeit relatively simple) weapons since at least Chalcolithic times (probably earlier), what is most interesting. I wonder how these weapons became lost in later times, excepting Wales, because if, as recorded historically, they could easily penetrate steel armors, I really see no reason for their oblivion, rather the opposite.

    2. Updated with the new data. Thanks again.

    3. They were probably lost in the Chalcolithic for the same reasons they were replaced by firearms later on. Longbows were superior weapons to firearms for a very long time, but it was much much cheaper to train people on use a firearm.

      The return on investment from learning to use a longbow presumably would have been higher for a hunter than for a farmer. Or at the very least, the calculus may have shifted as bows were replaced by some other weaponry (this paper suggests slings -

      Presumably the less suitable your land was to agriculture, the more reliant on you'd be on hunting, an hence archery. Sounds like the mountains of Wales would be such a place, as would some other interesting places. Also easier places to avoid getting overwhelmed by marauding sling wielding ruffians.

    4. Slingshots are indeed an interesting alternative: they were massively used in the Cantabrian wars, as I mentioned here, and were surely very effective and relatively easy to use. Also I guess that, with training, they work well for minor hunt such as hares or birds, for which arrows may be a bit oversized.

    5. BTW, your link is a very interesting study on the wider Anatolian early Pottery Neolithic (which does not seem older than that of Thessaly even in the oldest sites). Very much worth a read, thanks.

    6. "If so, we are talking of such terribly effective (albeit relatively simple) weapons since at least Chalcolithic times (probably earlier), what is most interesting."

      Just to echo a bit I think the critical element with the longbow wasn't the weapon in itself but how powerful it could become if enough time was spent training to use it.

      "Historically, hunting bows usually had draw weights of 50–60 lb"

      "The original draw forces of examples from the Mary Rose are estimated by Hardy at 150–160 lb"

      "A record of how boys and men trained to use the bows with high draw weights survives from the reign of Henry VII.
      [My yeoman father] taught me how to draw, how to lay my body in my bow ... not to draw with strength of arms as divers other nations do ... I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength, as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger. For men shall never shoot well unless they be brought up to it.
      —Hugh Latimer"

      "Skeletons of longbow archers are recognisably adapted, with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers."

      "it was the long training needed by longbowmen which eventually led to their being replaced by musketmen."

      Coming back to the Chalcolithic

      "Historically, hunting bows usually had draw weights of 50–60 lbf (220–270 N), which is enough for all but the very largest game and which most reasonably fit adults can manage with practice. Today, there are few modern longbowmen capable of using 180–185 lb"

      Shaggy fur coats?

      Maybe once there were only deer-sized targets the need declined?

      It would be interesting - now that the differences in the skeletons of the Mary Rose archers have been classified - if any other skeletons from pre-history have the same differences?

    7. I must admit I'm delighted by all the knowledge brought to this conversation. It's all most interesting. This last explanation, Grey, is like suddenly dawning to the secret of Odysseus' bow. There's no longbow but longbowman; they should begin encyclopedia articles with that kind of intro.

      That seems to mean that being a top bowman was some sort of "racial skill", in the sense of: either you're trained since young or you'll always be a mediocre bowman. At some time, this kind of training was something very important because bows and arrows were all around. But, oddly enough, it was retained only in Wales. Would it have been more widespread, the Middle Ages as we know it may have never existed (knights would not have stood a chance in battle).

      "Maybe once there were only deer-sized targets the need declined?"

      That has me spooked, really: there's no such change in the fauna between Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, nor were Ancient/Medieval Welsh probably motivated by hunting alone. My guess is that they just felt safer from armored knights and lords and their retainers. Yet that did not impede that Wales was eventually conquered by England, so really the armored warrior of the Bronze and Iron Age probably had enough power to defeat the most skilled bowmen (at least in some circumstances) and that was the real game-changer.

      What defeated the knights at Agincourt were not just the longbowmen probably but their deadly might combined with other more conventional troops (and a surprise effect maybe).

      "... any other skeletons from pre-history have the same differences?"

      Never heard of that kind of study but it really seems like the type of details to know.

      It's all most intriguing and potentially revealing, really.

    8. "There's no longbow but longbowman"


      "there's no such change in the fauna between Chalcolithic and Bronze Age"

      Yeah it was just a wild thought I had while writing the last post.

    9. "Never heard of that kind of study but it really seems like the type of details to know. "

      I saw a documentary some years ago about a modern longbowman who's been training for decades and they did an xray of his arms and one (left I think) was double the thickness of the other from drawing the bow. I'll see if i can find it.

  3. BTW, not sure if you guys have noticed but Bell Beaker Blogger has been publishing some interesting articles on this matter of Chalcolithic archery:

    1. The stuff on the bracers is very interesting.

      The condition the Mary Rose archers had (or one of the conditions at least) is called "Os Acromiale". Archers-link

      Personally i had no idea longbows went back into the Chalcolithic but now it makes me wonder if any very early skeletons had similar bone deformations?


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