The atlatl is a weapon originating in the Stone Age that is still used in parts of the world today. It is also known as a spear-thrower or dart thrower (Rhodes 46). It has had many purposes over the years in the realms of hunting, fishing, and fighting. The remains of atlatls and their darts have been found in Australia, New Guinea, Micronesia, South America, Central America, North America, and East Africa, and a similar design was used in Europe (Spear-Thrower). Atlatls are still used for hunting and fishing by indigenous groups of Australia and North America (Spear-Thrower). The variety of uses for the atlatl has resulted in many innovations and improvements to the design spanning the Stone Age and beyond.
Atlatls and their darts can be constructed around the world using a wide variety of materials. The dart shafts have been constructed from wood or river cane, and the tips have been found to be made of wood, stone, antler, bone, and copper (Rhodes 50 and Roth 3). Darts recovered all around Australia were found to have tips made from stingray tails (Roth 2-4). One or more sharp pieces were fitted into grooves in the wood, attached using gum liquefied by fire, and fastened with twine (Roth 2). The artifacts containing multiple stingray barbs were located around what is now Bloomfield, Australia (Roth 4). Materials used in atlatl and dart construction varied based on available natural resources as well as the purpose of the weapon.
Atlatls were used for hunting, fishing, and fighting, with specializations for each task. For example, a particular type of atlatl found between Bloomfield River and Cape Grafton, Australia, has a crescent moon shape instead of being straight, making it more accurate for fishing in close visual range (Roth 5). For fighting and hunting at long range, the atlatl was constructed to be much longer and straighter, with the longest recorded being almost two and a half feet long (Roth 6). In addition, the weight of the dart limits the range of the throw, with heavier darts having a smaller maximum range (Raymond 161). The purpose behind each atlatl and dart helped to determine the details of its form.
There are some similarities that overlap in atlatl construction around the world. Unlike spears, atlatl darts were made to be long, flexible, and light, more like arrows than spears (Rhodes 50). The remains of darts found over the years indicate that most are fletched with arrows in the back, though there are many different styles of dart tips (Rhodes 50). Around the world, the most common means to make twine for atlatl darts was using a mix of plant fibers and sinew (Rhodes 47). The two materials were either twisted together or braided (Rhodes 47). While the materials and the details of atlatl construction varied greatly, the general construction remained about the same.
While it was traditionally believed that the bow and arrow replaced the atlatl, the atlatl was in use contemporaneously with the bow and arrow in at least Mesoamerica and the Arctic, and is in fact still in use by the Inuit people (Raymond 153). The two have similar capabilities and are useful in slightly different situations, making it advantageous to having both at hand. While the bow is more accurate than the atlatl at long range, bows from the Stone Age also required special care (Rhodes 46). The string had to be removed most of the time in order to maintain the structure of the bow, and had to be kept dry in order to keep its flexibility (Rhodes 46). The advantage to the atlatl was that it was always ready to go, though the ammunition was heavier (Rhodes 46). In addition, the force that an atlatl produces is greater than the force produced by an English long bow, and significantly greater than the force produced by the rudimentary bows of the Stone Age (Raymond 171). As both the atlatl and the bow have different advantages, both have remained relevant.
The atlatl is a weapon that required detailed construction, often involving braiding and the use of fire. It was an innovation coming from the Stone Age that still sees use in parts of the world today. It is a weapon for hunting, fighting, and fishing, with innovations for each form of usage.
- Raymond, Anan. “Experiments in the Function and Performance of the Weighted Atlatl.” World Archaeology, vol. 18, no. 2, 1986, pp. 253-157.
- Rhodes, Harry. “Taking Ownership of Distance in the Stone Age With Spear, Atlatl, and Archery: Prehistoric Weapon Systems and the Domination of Distance.” Comparative Civilizations Review, vol. 69, no. 69, 2013, pp. 45-53.
- Roth, Walter. “Fighting Weapons.” Archaeology Papers, vol.19, 1981, pp. 1-16.
- “Spear-Thrower.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 July 2018.