Atlatl Spear Thrower - 17,000 Year Old Hunting Technology

The Technology and History of the Atlatl Spear Thrower

Atlatl Display, Gold Museum of Bogota, Colombia
Atlatl Display, Gold Museum of Bogota, Colombia. Carl & Ann Purcell / Getty Images

An atlatl (pronounced atul-atul or aht-LAH-tul) is the name used primarily by American scholars for a spear thrower, a hunting tool that was invented at least as long ago as the Upper Paleolithic period in Europe. It may be much older. Spear throwers are a significant technological improvement on simply throwing or thrusting a spear, in terms of safety, speed, distance, and accuracy.

The American scientific name for the spearthrower is from the Aztec language, Nahuatl.

The atlatl was recorded by Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Mexico and discovered that the Aztec people had a stone weapon that could pierce metal armor. The term was first noted by the American anthropologist Zelia Nuttall [1857-1933], who wrote about Mesoamerican atlatls in 1891, based on drawn images and three surviving examples. Other terms in use around the globe include spear thrower, woomera (in Australia), and propulseur (in French).

What is a Spearthrower?

An atlatl is a slightly curved piece of wood, ivory, or bone, measuring between 13-61 centimeters (5-24 inches) long and between 2-7 cm (1-3 in) wide. One end is hooked, and the hook fits into the nock end of a separate spear shaft, itself between 1-2.5 meters (3-8 feet) in length. The working end of the shaft simply be sharpened or include a stone projectile point.

Atlatls are often decorated or painted--the oldest ones we have are elaborately carved.

In some American cases, banner stones, rocks carved into a bow-tie shape with a hole in the middle, were used on the spear shaft. Scholars have been unable to find that adding the weight of a banner stone does anything to the velocity or thrust of the operation. They have theorized that banner stones may have been thought to act as a flywheel, stabilizing the motion of the spear throwing, or that it was not used during the throw at all, but rather to balance the spear when the atlatl was at rest.

How To...

The motion used by the thrower is similar to that of a baseball pitcher. The thrower holds the atlatl handle in the palm of her hand and pinches the dart shaft with her fingers. Balancing both behind her ear, she pauses, pointing with her opposite hand toward the target; and then, with a movement as if she were pitching a ball, she flings the shaft forward allowing it to slip out of her fingers as it flies towards the target.

The atlatl stays level and the dart on target throughout the motion. As with baseball, the snap of the wrist at the end imparts much of the velocity, and the longer the atlatl, the longer the distance (although there is an upper limit). The speed of a properly flung 1.5 m (5 ft) spear equipped with a 30 cm (1 ft) atlatl is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour; one researcher reported that he put an atlatl dart through his garage door on his first attempt.

The technology of an atlatl is that of a lever, or rather a system of levers, which together combine and increase the force of the human overhand throw. The flipping motion of the thrower's elbow and shoulder in effect adds a joint to the thrower’s arm. The proper use of the atlatl makes spear-assisted hunting an efficiently targeted and deadly experience.

Earliest Atlatls

The earliest secure information concerning atlatls comes from several caves in France dated to the Upper Paleolithic. Early atlatls in France are works of art, such as the fabulous example known as "le faon aux oiseaux" (Fawn with Birds), a 52 cm (20 in) long carved piece of reindeer bone decorated with a carved ibex and birds. This atlatl was recovered from the cave site of La Mas d’Azil, and was made between 15,300 and 13,300 years ago.

A 50 cm (19 in) long atlatl, found in the La Madeleine site in the Dordogne valley of France, has a handle carved as a hyena effigy; it was made about 13,000 years ago. The Canecaude cave site deposits dated to about 14,200 years ago contained a small atlatl (8 cm, or 3 in) carved in the shape of a mammoth. The very earliest atlatl found to date is a simple antler hook dated to the Solutrean period (about 17,500 years ago), recovered from the site of Combe Sauniere.

Atlatls are necessarily carved from organic material, wood or bone, and so the technology may be much older than 17,000 years ago. The stone points used on a thrust or hand-thrown spear are larger and heavier than those used on an atlatl, but that's a relative measure and a sharpened end will work as well. Simply put, archaeologists do not know how old the technology is.

Modern Atlatl Use

The atlatl has lots of fans today. The World Atlatl Association sponsors the International Standard Accuracy Contest (ISAC), a competition of atlatl skill held in small venues all over the world; they hold workshops so if you'd like to learn how to throw with an atlatl, that's where to start. The WAA keeps a list of world champions and ranking master atlatl throwers.

The competitions have also been used along with controlled experiments to gather field data concerning the effect of the different elements of the atlatl process, such as the weight and shape of projectile point used, the length of the shaft and the atlatl. A lively discussion can be found in the archives of the journal American Antiquity about whether you can safely identify whether a particular point was used in bow and arrow versus atlatl: the results are inconclusive.

If you are a dog-owner you may have even used a modern spearthrower, known as the “Chuckit" (R).

Study History

Archaeologists began to recognize atlatls in the late 19th century. The anthropologist/adventurer Frank Cushing [1857-1900] made replicas and may have experimented with the technology; Zelia Nuttall wrote about Mesoamerican atlatls in 1891; and anthropologist Otis T. Mason [1838-1908]looked at Arctic spear throwers and noticed that they were similar to those described by Nuttall.

More recently, studies by scholars such as John Whittaker and Brigid Grund have focused on the physics of atlatl throwing, and trying to parse out why people eventually adopted the bow and arrow.