Peruvian atlatls represent a type not seen very often among modern American atlatlists, although occasionally described (Bruechert 1995; 1998). This one is in the collections of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. According to Mason (1928) it was collected in the 1920s by W. C. Farabee, but he left no information on where he got several atlatls, whether excavated or bought from looters. This one may have come from a grave in the Pisco Valley near Nazca in southern Peru.
SA 3743 is a robust atlatl with a simple dramatic carved grip. Others are a bit slighter, and some of the grips are very elaborate carvings. They should be grasped with a hammer grip around the shaft above (distal) to the carved grip piece. On 3743, the underside of the bone is highly polished where a hand would rub it (although the wood is not – is it an old grip on a new shaft, or just not visible?). You could hold this atlatl below the carving at the extreme end, but the space is small on 3743, and on some others, far too small to hold. Also, gripping the bindings would probably work them loose, so the grip must be above the carving.
The shaft is a stout piece of reddish brown hardwood, fairly heavy, with a nice grain, tapered slightly both directions from the grip area. The hook is a carved piece of wood, a surprisingly slight peg with decorative grooves, set at a slight angle to the shaft. On specimens that are missing their hook, you can see that a notch has been cut for it in the end of the shaft. The hook is secured with lashing, but the lashing is covered with a hard, dark mastic blob.
The carved grip piece is set at an angle of about 13 degrees from the plane of the hook, so as you hold the atlatl with a spear at rest, the carving would tilt slightly to your left when the hook was upright. The spear would be outside, to your right, and could be rested against the carving or pinned against it with a finger. It is a cleverly carved flat piece of thick bone, probably sea mammal. Some mastic which looks like a resin glues it to the shaft, and it is then lashed around with about 27 turns of cord. The cord appears to me to be sinew fibers, but could be a coarse vegetal fiber. The other atlatls appear to use cotton lashings. However, a black coating obscures the cord as if it had been coated with tar, resin, or wax before use. This might help it hold on the slightly slanted bone – I had a lot of trouble keeping the lashing from just sliding off on my replica. I could not figure out how the ends of the cord were tied or secured – they are not visible.
The carved grip piece is a nice piece of work. It appears to represent a condor or other predatory bird with a hooked beak, which has been cleverly cut by drilling through the piece and then sawing with a cord and abrasive. On one side, you can see that the cord cut too far at the turn of the mouth. It is decorated with inlayed dots of a purple material that may be shell, and a green which appears to be a dark malachite. The eye sockets are empty but a bit of resin remains in one, so they had inlays too. On the bird’s left, the neck inlays are one purple and then three green; on the right, purple and green alternate. The base is 1.21 cm thick, the neck 1.08, the tip of the beak .67 thick. All edges are rounded off.
Length: 51.8 cm (20.4 inches)
Handle Length: 8.1 cm (from distal edge of carved piece to prox end of shaft)
(if you gripped the lashing, you would have 6.7 cm to fit your hand in)
Hook to First finger: ca. 33
Hook to distal Tip: 3.1
Grip Width Across: Shaft at grip area: 1.69 W with slightly ovoid cross section, 1.77 T
Shaft Thickness: 1.5 (at about midshaft)
Shaft Width: 1.46
shaft tapers to a roundish distal end 1.09 diameter
from grip it tapers to proximal end about 1.62 diameter
Hook Length: 0.5
Hook Width: 0.38 round peg
Hook Height: 0.8 (top of hook to shaft, clearance)
Weight (gms): 119 (3.8 oz)
My replica, January 2004
I have given a precise description of one specimen, because although there is a lot of variability among prehistoric atlatls of any type, copying one closely gives a reasonable assurance that it will perform like at least one original, a problem that interested me more than attempting to replicate the manufacturing process. Some of the original materials are unknown or unavailable, so I used what I had, and did all the work with modern tools. The shaft is cherry, and ended slightly larger in diameter than the original, by a millimeter or two in all dimensions. As large sea mammals are scarce in Iowa, I used moose antler for the carved grip piece. My mouth cut with a Dremmel tool is not as neat as the original work with string and abrasive. The inlays are bits of steatite, with pipestone for the eyes. I drilled a shallow hole, ground a rod of stone to fit, cut off the end, secured it in the hole with epoxy mixed with charcoal to give black paste, and then ground all off flush with the surface of the bone. The hook is a rod of some tropical hardwood, lashed on with commercial cotton cord, and covered with my fake spinifex resin (pinon pitch mixed with hotmelt glue and charcoal). The resemblance is good. I glued on the grip piece with the same, although it is not a very strong contact glue. I would like to know what the Peruvians used. I cut a slight facet on the shaft to seat the carving. I couldn’t see one on the original, but some of the other specimens plainly had one. My lashing is cotton cord dyed black and given a light coat of pine resin and beeswax. The cord is slightly larger diameter and looks duller than the original and the resin/wax did not resemble the black coating on the ancient cord. The lashing was hard to get on – it kept slipping down toward the narrow proximal end. The angle of my bird’s base was too great at first, so I flattened it more like the original, and then the lashing held.
Photograph of my Peruvian atlatl replica
Drawing and specifications of my Peruvian atlatl replica
Length: 52.0 cm
Handle Length: 8.0
Hook to First finger: ca. 34.5
Grip Width Across: Shaft at grip area: 1.85 W with slightly ovoid cross section, 2.08 T
Shaft Thickness: 1.79 at about midshaft
Shaft Width: 1.7.3
shaft tapers to a roundish distal end 1.3 diameter
from grip it tapers to proximal end about 1.73 diameter
Hook Length: 0.7
Hook Width: .44
Hook Height: 1.0
Weight (gms): 105
Unfortunately, I have no information on the darts used with the original atlatl, so my tests serve only to compare my replica to others I use, and cannot fully explore the capabilities of the original. Uhle (1909) compares prehistoric Peruvian darts to the large cane arrows widely used in South America. He illustrates a projectile which is unfletched and only 66 cm long, too short for an effective atlatl dart. He says the butt-end is cut off straight, implying that there is no cup, which suggests to me that this example is incomplete.
Without a good replica of the proper dart, I used my own cane darts, which are in fact roughly comparable to Brazilian arrows from several tribes that I have seen. I usually use an atlatl 65 cm long, so the Peruvian model seems very short and light. I tried holding the darts both with thumb and forefinger pinch, and by pressing the dart against the carved bird with my forefinger, which left the thumb free to strengthen the grip. Both techniques worked equally well. I found it hard to balance my usual cane darts, which are 210-225 cm long and weigh around 100 grams (6’10”- 7’4”, 3.2 oz). Short, light cane darts, 160-170 cm long and weighing around 75 grams (5’3”- 5’7”, 2.4 oz), worked very well, although I don’t think I got as much speed as I do with my usual longer atlatl. Not a very systematic test, but it makes sense that a short light atlatl works best with short light darts.
Mason, J. Alden
1928 Some Unusual Spear Throwers of Ancient America. The Museum Journal 19:290-324. University of Pennsylvania University Museum.
1909 Peruvian Throwing Sticks. American Anthropologist, n.s. 11:624-627. (Reprinted in The Cast Spring 2001:14-16.
Bruechert, Lorenz W.
1995 Recovery of a Spear Thrower in Chile. The Atlatl 8(1): 1-2
Bruechert, Lorenz W.
1998 Mummy Burial of the Muisca Empire. The Atlatl 11(2):1