Intro to the Atlatl
Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site
January 29, 2003
The atlatl, or spearthrower, is a very ancient weapon. Ones have been found dating back 18,000 years, but since the main components are usually easily-rotted wood, sinew, and bone, there's no telling when it was first used. But until the bow and arrow came along to replace it, it was the most effective weapon on earth.
In its earliest form, the atlatl (from the Nahuatl/Aztec word, pronounced "at LAT tul" today, but "AH tlaht" back then) was simply a long branch with a smaller branch coming off at an angle. Everything after that is just a refinement.
Every atlatl has 3 main parts -- the handle (grip), the shaft, and the peg. After that, everything is variable. Lengths range from 5 1/2" (Santa Barbara, Baja California) to 48" or more in (Australia). Widths range from 1/4" to 8". Materials used include wood, bone, ivory, and antler. Some have pegs to hold the darts ("male") while others have sockets ("female"). They have been found with grooves, dart rests, finger holes, leather thongs, shell grips, antler handles, antler pegs, bone pegs, tooth pegs, carved grips, carved designs, paint, bannerstones (which were only used in North America)... The list gets longer with each new one discovered.
No matter what the shape is, though, the basic principle behind every one is the same. An atlatl works by hyper-accelerating the dart at the moment of release in a very simple yet very effective manner.
Throwing a spear by hand involves the entire body. You step up, shift your weight, bring your arm forward, and flip your wrist to release the spear in one fluid motion. Throwing with an atlatl is exactly the same.
So what makes the atlatl more effective? Physics. When you flip your wrist to throw the spear, your hand moves about 7" in 1/10 of a second. This 6 feet per second (about 4 mph) is added to the velocity of the spear. The final result is about 50 mph.
When you flip your wrist with a 24" atlatl, the peg end (and the attached dart) moves about 70" in that 1/10 of a second (calculations available upon request). This adds 60 feet per second (40 mph) to the velocity of the dart. The final result is about 90 mph. More speed means farther throws, harder hits, better penetration, and less time for the prey to react. That is what makes the atlatl so effective.
And it is effective. In the past it has been used to hunt the "megabeasts". Atlatl points have been found in the bones of woolly mammoths and giant bison, and it is thought that man's use of this weapon is what led to the megabeasts' extinction.
How could one man kill a mammoth? He couldn't. But for ancient people, hunting was often a group activity. Small herds of animals were driven against a natural barrier (cliff, rock wall, river) and then everybody started throwing. When the animals finally escaped, the wounded ones left behind were finished off.
The atlatl wasn't only used by ancient or primitive people, though. Many of the advanced South and Central American cultures (including the Aztecs and Mayans) used it well into the 1500s. When the conquistadores arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs were dismayed to find that their war weapon, the bow, couldn't penetrate the Spaniard's steel breastplates. In desperation, they turned to their hunting weapon, the atlatl. This did penetrate the armor, a fact attested to in several Spanish documents.
It's still being used today, too. Creek Indians in Alabama are still passing on the knowledge, and there are 4 parts of the world where the atlatl was still the weapon of choice as recently as 30 years ago: Australia, New Guinea, Mexico, and above the Arctic Circle. In New Guinea and Mexico it was simply a spearthrower, but for the others it was much more.
The Aleuts and Inuits did a lot of hunting from kayaks with their atlatl, the norsaq. Since the kayak is such an unsteady craft, a weapon that occupied both hands would have made it almost impossible to maintain the hunter's balance. The one-handed norsaq left the other arm available for a counterbalance, and the free hand was used to hold the line to reel it in or let it out. The norsaq was much shorter than a bow, making it easier to store in a confined space. It had no "working parts" that could be damaged by the water. And the most common design was wide and flat with a very secure grip. If the kayak did roll over, the norsaq was used as a paddle to right the kayak (and the hunter).
The inhabitants of central Australia, being desert nomads, would only carry what was absolutely necessary. Their woomera, being wide, flat, and concave, was designed with that in mind. It was not just for throwing spears -- it was also a mixing pot, a place to put fire tinder, a fire-starter, a chisel, a digging tool, a resin "reservoir", a map, and a musical instrument. This was the original Swiss Army knife.
Surprisingly, the historic range of the atlatl wasn't much larger than this. While it was used extensively in North and South America, Australia, and Indonesia, the rest of the world seems to have missed it. Except for a few artifacts found in France, it's not found in Europe; except for some Siberian Aleuts, it's not found in Asia; and except for some references in Sumerian, it's not found in Africa. These cultures seemed to go directly from spears to the bow.
So why did the bow replace the atlatl? There are several reasons. Bows are easier to aim, faster to fire, easier to learn to use, don't require any fast movements that would startle the game, and arrows are much easier to carry than darts. A hunter with a bow and arrow could go after deer by himself, while the atlatl was more of a group weapon. These advantages made up for having less hitting power and penetration.
The atlatl is currently going through a revival period. Associations of enthusiasts are springing up all over America and Europe, and it is demonstrated at museums, schools, historic sites, and festivals all over. There is even a World Atlatl Association which holds officially sanctioned events and crowns a world champion each year. It is even legal to hunt with in some states. People are rediscovering this ancient weapon and finding out why it was so successful for tens of thousands of years.
And it's easy to understand why. The first time you make a good throw and hit the target where you were aiming, something about the sound resonates inside you. It's a very primal feeling, and it's hard to explain, but you feel like an ancient hunter, and you know that your family will eat tonight. Try it for yourself and you'll see what I mean.