Originally Posted by Iain
Thanks guys for the very interesting posts.
I think a theme that's been identified here is the lack of particularly strong woods for bow making.
Are there cases of horn bows in African cultures? I don't recall seeing any. But there are certainly a lot of wildlife candidates with the appropriate materials available...
The ancient Egyptians had compound bows, although I don't recall offhand how they were made.
Not all African bows were junk, either. There's a story of a Brit on safari back in the days of empire who brought a bow with him to East Africa. One of the natives he employed brought along his own competition archery kit for fun. When they had a friendly shoot-off, the native's bow was better. Granted this was probably in the 1930s, but some tribes had decent bows.
In the tropics, moisture is a huge issue. This keeps archers from using horn for compound bows (since it messes up the glue and promotes rot of all materials). Even drying the bow wood to get maximum performance is impossible. There are two ways around this: making huge wood bows (as in South America and Papua New Guinea), and using smaller, weaker bows but poisoning the arrows. I know the latter was used by the pygmies and others, and from the pictures above, I'll bet the former was used as well.
With the pygmy bows, AFAIK, the idea was to make something close to a throw-away bow. They didn't go in for bows that would last 100 years (as with a Turkish compound bow), because the bows (like all wood) would rot in the tropics. Instead, they went in for simple designs that were easy to build and easy to replace. Even if the result isn't spectacular by our standards, they make sense, given the environment in which they were made and used.
In any case, were I looking for compound bows, I'd look in North Africa. Compound bows are dryland weapons, and you need a good source of horn as well as wood to make one. Unfortunately, most of them were replaced long ago by firearms.
One grim thought: if the war in north Mali brings more western soldiers into the region, I suspect we'll get an efflux of weapons from that area in the coming decade. At that point, we'll probably learn more about Sahelian archery. War seems to have a way of promoting this kind of study.
My 0.02 cents,