Take a deep dive into one of our continent’s oldest hunting weapons
Developed around 20,000 years ago, the first definitive versions of the atlatl, found in caves in Europe, utilized antler and bone hooks. But what is this unique weapon?
Essentially, an atlatl is a simple lever that extends the user’s throwing radius, usually about 2 feet long with a small hook to engage a concavity on the tail of a light and flexible spear called a dart. The dart must flex to accommodate the arching motion of the throw and maintain straight flight.
Evidence suggests that early people who migrated into North America had this weapon with them. In contrast, the bow only appeared here roughly 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what we might think, the atlatl was not instantly replaced by the bow–in every context. For more than 13,000 years (most of American Prehistory) the atlatl was the primary piercing projectile weapon for hunting, fishing, and fighting.
How do you pronounce atlatl?
The name atlatl comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. As with most foreign words, we have adopted an Anglicized pronunciation (atuhl-latuhl).
The correct pronunciation (ah-tla-tl) includes a glottal stop (a sudden stop of air denoted by the ‘h’) while the final ‘tl’ is pronounced by placing the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth and blowing air around the sides. It’s like a “t” sound but using the sides of the tongue rather than the tip. You can check Kurly Tlapoyawa’s video on YouTube to listen to a good pronunciation. In Europe, it’s commonly called a spear-thrower.
Why do Americans call it an atlatl and not a spear-thrower?
In 1891, Zelia Nuttall, a prominent female archaeologist working in Mexico wrote an influential piece about the Aztec atlatl and its projectile, which she called a dart. This seems fitting since, in English, the archaic form of dart simply means a light spear. Most atlatl darts tend to be lighter than most spears, more flexible, and fletched to help maintain straight flight.
In studying both colonial documents and ancient Indigenous writing, Nuttall discovered that the atlatl had a deep history as the preferred projectile weapon of elite warriors among the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations. Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century found darts launched by atlatls to be formidable weapons. This was Western culture’s first reintroduction to the weapon since ancient times.
Did Paleoindians use the atlatl and dart?
Moving further back in time, archaeologists strongly suspect that Paleoindian people in North America 11,000 to 13,000 years ago hunted ice age megafauna and smaller animals with atlatls. They likely also carried thrusting spears, which accompany projectile weapons in most toolkits of historic hunter-gatherers worldwide as, while they hunted a large variety of game, they had to fend off big predators.
How do we know what weapons they used? Usually, all that remains of ancient composite weapons are stone projectile points since the wooden shafts and sinew bindings rot away in most conditions. Archaeologists have tried to use various measurements of projectile points to distinguish between spears, darts, and arrows, but this only seems useful for the extreme ends of the spectrum like small arrow tips or large spear tips. In between, there is a healthy amount of overlap as some large arrows are the size of small javelins.
Read Ed Ashby’s article “Papua New Guinea Bows and Arrows” to get an idea.
Like the bone and ivory hooks from caves in France, definitive evidence of Paleoindian atlatls comes from parts of atlatls themselves. Divers in Florida rivers have uncovered what appear to be atlatl hooks of mastodon ivory alongside other Paleoindian artifacts and megafauna remains. These hooks are not unlike bone and antler hooks found in excavated caves and rock shelters in Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas a little later in time. The oldest complete atlatl in North America was found in a cave in Nevada. It dates to 5,650 years ago and has a bone or antler hook. Paleoindian atlatls may have looked similar.
When did the bow first appear in North America?
By 2,500 years ago, the bow began spreading into North America from the far north. In some locations, it caught on quickly while in others the adoption was more gradual. But in some places, such as the southern Great Plains and Great Basin, the atlatl seems to have remained viable for big game hunting for a thousand years or more. Apparently, hunters in some contexts did not find the more challenging methods to construct and maintain bow and arrow equipment so compelling.
This seems sensible because hunting bison in open terrain, where group drives were often used, does not benefit as much from the stealthier qualities of the bow. Atlatl darts are usually heavier than arrows and have larger tips. They carry plenty of energy and momentum. As a result, they produce substantial wounds and should have been effective weapons against large prey.
Once again, these theories are built primarily from the analysis of stone points. Looking just at stone points over these periods, a bimodality occurs in their metrics. In other words, two different populations of point sizes are present: larger points represented by older dart point styles and new designs of smaller points that probably represent arrows. This gives us good reason to believe that, like in Mesoamerica, both weapons were used by these cultures.
Further indication of the continued use of atlatls in what is now the United States derives from colonial records. A Conquistador in De Soto’s expedition was hit in the leg with a barbed atlatl dart near the mouth of the Mississippi River and died when his comrades tried to extract it. Early Europeans also mentioned atlatls on the Baja Peninsula and further north along the western coast for hunting, fishing, and fighting. Although they sometimes failed to describe atlatls, early explorers across the continent frequently mention the use of both arrows and “darts.”
More extensive use of the atlatl after the bow occurs in the Arctic, Mexico, and South America, where several societies continued to use atlatls, in some cases through to the present. Eskimos used the weapon to hunt seals and even polar bears. In the 17th Century, the colonial Dutch in Brazil employed Tarairiu warriors as mercenaries against the Portuguese. The Tarairiu used the atlatl and dart as their projectile weapon of choice and were reportedly terrifying to local bow-wielding groups as well as colonial Europeans.
How effective is an atlatl?
Experiments are helping us understand how the atlatl operates and what it is capable of.
In the 1980s, George Frison, a famous rancher archaeologist from Wyoming, went to Africa to experiment on elephant carcasses during a culling operation. Frison found that hypothetical reconstructions of Paleoindian atlatl darts could produce deadly wounds on elephants from 18 yards with only one shot.
The darts used by Frison were heavy and carried a lot of energy, so they had to be well engineered to penetrate and withstand impacts. Direct impacts to elephant ribs would still stop these projectiles, but a single well-placed shot may have been all that was needed to bring down a mammoth. Having met Frison, a towering figure, I can fully believe this account. Once he leaned in and said to me, “You know, people don’t understand the power of this weapon. I could literally pin you to that wall with my elephant atlatl.”
I could only nod vigorously.
We can also imagine some contexts in which mammoths may have escaped bristling with darts, as happened occasionally during historic Plains Native American bison hunts. But such occurrences did not stop skilled Plains hunters from exploiting bison successfully using simple bows and lances. Frison’s experiments are useful, but his darts were not necessarily sleek or well-designed; further experiments are necessary to really understand what a well-designed Paleoindian atlatl and dart would be capable of.
Additionally, Aleutian Islanders used the atlatl to hunt sea mammals from kayaks. Native Aleutians coated the tips of their harpoons with deadly aconite poison that could incapacitate blue whales. In the Southwestern United States, interchangeable dart foreshafts were used, some with hafted stone tips for big game and others with blunt tips for rabbit hunting. It seems the atlatl and dart were used to hunt nearly every size of game animal.
The recognized deadliness of the atlatl and dart by Spanish Conquistadors has led to the interpretation that atlatl darts could pierce medieval European armor. This was true to a point. Most Conquistadors came poorly provisioned for combat and obtained quilted cotton armor from Mesoamerican traders. Fabric armor was common in both the Americas and Europe at the time, where it remained effective protection against arrows and crossbow bolts. Only wealthy nobles could afford steel plate body armor, which was designed to deflect musket balls. The evidence suggests that, of the initial party to enter Mesoamerica, only Cortez and his second in command had these expensive pieces of kit. Later depictions of Conquistadors looking like medieval knights in full plate armor were inspired by 17th- and 18th-Century Spanish pageants.
I believe that modern people can regain ancient skills with sufficient practice. Colleagues and I measured the velocities of atlatl darts launched by modern people of a variety of skill levels. This showed us that atlatlists with only a day or two of practice who still struggle to hit a target can achieve the typical velocities of some strong users who have practiced from a young age. Atlatl darts tend to travel between 55 and 65 mph (80-95 fps). Some powerful throws can go beyond 70 mph, but it becomes difficult to maintain accuracy.
Accuracy is harder to master than speed. I would not be surprised if past hunters were more accurate than most modern users, but I have witnessed a remarkable degree of accuracy among modern users. Multiple times a friend has joked, “See the hole in the center of the target? Watch me put my dart in it.”
Then it happens.
If you wonder how this is achieved, read the original book, “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. Like the traditional bow, accuracy with the atlatl is instinctive. Consistency requires a clear focus on the target without thinking of yourself, how you’re throwing, or things going on in your surroundings. As with any weapon, repetition and properly designed equipment are highly beneficial. I and others find that although longer shots can occasionally be made, a maximum range for consistent accuracy is about 15 yards. This is consistent with observations of Indigenous Australian hunters.
Making your own atlatls and darts
How does one design effective equipment? Atlatls and darts are extremely variable. They come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, with darts ranging from 90 to more than 400 grams and 5 to 13 feet. Each component works together to make an effective weapon.
For instance, the weight of the atlatl should balance with the dart, but exactly where the balance should fall depends on the dimensions of the atlatl, the dimensions, mass and material of the dart, how the user grips and throws with the atlatl, his/her stature and strength, and various other aspects. To make things even more complicated, cultural and individual preference plays no small part in the design of effective atlatls and darts.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, my personal preference is to reconstruct examples of old weapons from the historic or archaeological record, where all or most of the components are present. Early on, I found it most helpful to carefully replicate the materials and dimensions of complete atlatls and darts from White Dog Cave in Arizona. After much struggling with darts that flew poorly—accompanied by honest suspicion that the ancient users of the weapon didn’t know what they were doing—I finally made the dart of the correct material and to the right dimensions. I remember being blown away after stepping around the side of my house and watching the dart sail straight away with the most perfect flight. This made it immediately clear to me that the weapon used in the ancient Southwest had been perfected over generations by people who depended on it daily for their livelihoods.
I continue to enjoy these replicas, but I have also designed my own equipment around the same principles that informed the design of preserved ancient atlatls from the Intermountain West. To get started, I recommend the book by Justin Garnett, “Practical Atlatlry of the Four Corners: A Complete Guide to the Basketmaker Atlatl”.
Ashby, Ed; 2008 Papua New Guinea Bows and Arrows. Electronic Document, https://www.grizzlystik.com/Dr.-Ed-Ashby-Reports.aspx, accessed April 9, 2020.
Bohr, Roland; 2014 Gifts from the Thunder Beings: Indigenous Archery and European Firearms in the Northern Plains and Central Subarctic, 1670-1870. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
Cundy, B. J.; 1989 Formal Variation in Australian Spear and Spearthrower Technology. BAR International Series 546. B.A.R., Oxford, England.
Frison, George C.; 1989 Experimental Use of Clovis Weaponry and Tools on African Elephants. American Antiquity 54(4):766–784. DOI:10.2307/280681.
Hemmings, Christopher Andrew; 2004 The organic Clovis: A single continent-wide cultural adaptation. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel; 1962 The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press, Boston.
Massey, William C.; 1961 The Survival of the Dart-Thrower on the Peninsula of Baja California. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17:81–93.
Nuttall, Zelia; 1891 The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans. Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum 1(3):1–37.
Pohl, John, and Adam Hook; 2001 The conquistador, 1492-1550. Warrior. Osprey Publishing, Oxford.
Prins, Harald E. L.; 2010 The Atlatl as Combat Weapon in 17th-Century Amazonia: Tapuya Indian Warriors in Dutch Colonial Brazil. The Atlatl 23(2):1–10.
Swanton, John R.; 1938 Historic use of the spear-thrower in southeastern North America. American Antiquity 3(4):356–358.
Tomka, Steve A.; 2013 The Adoption of the Bow and Arrow: A Model Based on Experimental Performance Characteristics. American Antiquity 78(3):553–569.
Walde, Dale; 2013 The Bow and Cultural Complexity of the Canadian Plains. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 22(3):139–144. DOI:10.1002/evan.21354.
Whittaker, John C; 2007 Clovis Atlatls? Hemmings’ Evidence from Florida Rivers. The Atlatl 20(3):1–2.
Whittaker, John C., Devin B. Pettigrew, and Ryan J. Grohsmeyer; 2017 Atlatl Dart Velocity: Accurate Measurements and Implications for Paleoindian and Archaic Archaeology. PaleoAmerica 3(2):161–181. DOI:10.1080/20555563.2017.1301133.