Eton Museum Wapishana Bow and Arrows

Wapishana Bow and Arrows at Eton College Museum

Wapishana Bow and Arrows from Sand Creek, Rupununi, Guyana donated by Graeme Fearon, 10 February 2019 to Eton Museum

Between September-December 1993 I took part in Raleigh International’s Expedition 93L to Guyana. After spending several weeks repainting wards in a hospital at Mahaica on the Atlantic coast, and helping to construct a jetty at Fort Nassau on the Berbice river, my group’s final project was collaborating with GAHEF (the Guyana Agency for Health, Environment and Food) on a survey of infant nutrition among the Wapishana villages of the southern savannah.

These villages lie in Guyana’s Region IX (“Upper Takutu-Upper Esequibo” – shaded red on the map below) near the Brazilian border. The locals are mainly from the Wapishana (or Wapichan) group of indigenous peoples, speaking an Arawak language. One village, Shulinab (see below) is also known locally as Macushi, reflecting the preponderance of Carib-speaking Macushi people from just further north.

Both Wapishana and Macushi are mainly subsistence farmers or vaqueros/cattle ranchers. Although nominally Christian (Roman Catholic), they retain many traditional beliefs, especially ascribing any misfortune, illness or death on malevolent spirits or “kanaima”. Traditional skills and crafts are also still widely practised and prized, not least the manufacture and use of hunting bows and arrows.

We divided the villages into 2 districts and covered each in turn between 8 November – 2 December 1993. We mostly walked from village to village but occasionally managed to arrange lifts (in trucks, land rovers etc) for the longer stretches.

District 1
District 2
Shea (named after the nearby Shea Rock – a large granite outcrop)Sand Creek /Soburun (“Home of the Howler Monkeys”)
Maruranao (“Giant Armadillo Hill”)Dardanau Ranch (“Macaw Spirit Creek Hill”)
Awarwanao (“Windy Creek Hill”)Shulinab (named after the Shaorai palm tree)
Aishalton (“Fish Poison Plant Island”)Potarinao (“Stingray Hill”)
Karaudar/Karaudarnao (“Big Snake Hill”)Katoonarib (“Many Bush Island”)
Achiwib (“Wild Garlic”)Sawariwao (“Home of the Fish Spirit”)

According to my diary from the time, we arrived at Sand Creek on Monday 29 November 1993. The population at the time was approx 750 people (approx 830 in 2019). On Tuesday 30 a friend and I got talking to a villager who was fletching arrows. He showed us 3 different types:

  • “standard” heads for shooting small game or savannah deer. The heads are made from fencing wire and are sharply barbed;
  • blunt heads for stunning birds so as to harvest their feathers for further fletching. The heads are made of wood and the bird is set free once it has recovered!
  • fishing heads, much like the “standard” model but with a detachable head tied to the shaft with a long length of line. If a fish is hit, the barbed head will stick in it while the wooden shaft will detach and float on the surface of the water enabling the fish to be located and reeled in.

I had no cash (which is in any event of little use in a subsistence economy) but I bartered a Swiss army knife, a Tupperware box and a Marks & Spencer long-sleeved shirt for a bow and an arrow of each sort. I calculated that the knife, box and shirt represented about a day’s wages for me at the time and so were a fair exchange for the day’s labour involved in making the bow and arrows. Needless to say, we were both delighted with our transaction!