Sending a Dart Through Armor: The Story of the Ancient Native Weapon Atlatl, Now a Modern Sport

Sending a Dart Through Armor: The Story of the Ancient Native Weapon Atlatl, Now a Modern Sport

By: 
Lee Allen
6/24/12

To many people, “A is for Apple,” but for early Indigenous Peoples, the A stood for Atlatl --- an ancient weapon that predated the bow and arrow and was an effective implement to fend off enemies or to bring home supper.

The atlatl, one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions, dates back to 15,000 B.C. or earlier with the first-known spear throwers belonging to the Paleolithic period, used to hunt critters like mammoths and mastodons.

The word atlatl comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec who used the weapon in encounters against Spaniards.  “The actual Aztec definition is ‘to throw over water’ because hunters used the atlatl to hunt small game around lakes.  It’s an efficient tool to use for large and small animals,” says Choctaw Nation member and amateur atlatl thrower Dave Morris.

Adds spokesman Bob Sizemore of SALT, Study of Ancient Lifeways and Technologies: “It was a powerful weapon to hurl projectiles at 250 feet-per-second with tremendous power.  Spanish soldiers left records that the atlatl had even penetrated their armor plating.”

Indeed, author Colin Taylor writing in Native American Weapons, notes the atlatl “is capable of sending a dart with such great force that it has been known to pass completely through a man armed with a coat of mail.”

The atlatl is simplicity in design, essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook that engages a spear or dart on the other end.  A flipping motion of the atlatl propels the spear much faster and farther than if thrown by hand.

“The throwing motion is the same as throwing a ball or a rock,” according to John Whittaker of The World Atlatl Association.  “The main difference is when you snap your wrist at the end of a pitch, your wrist provides a short level arm while that same wrist snap with an atlatl provides a long lever, like adding another arm joint.”

“The stick makes your arm longer, so when you swing the atlatl and release the arrow or dart, you have a lot more speed, force, and distance of the projectile, about 200% more energy that a toss by hand,” says Sizemore.  And it can make a big difference as demonstrated in the current world record toss of 848 feet.

Most everybody’s ancestors used atlatls at some time in the past.  “The atlatl technology actually put humans at the top of the food chain,” Sizemore says.  “We didn’t have the claws, teeth, strength, or speed of wild animals, so at some point someone used their brain to create a method of throwing a spear farther and faster than you could by hand and, overnight, that put humans in the category of being top predator.”

Today the atlatl may still be in use among remnants of Aztec and Mayan cultures as well as in some parts of Mexico and by Eskimo groups hunting seals in the Pacific Northwest.

For the past 25 years, the World Atlatl Association has been promoting interest through World Atlatl Day Throwing Competitions in a number of states and 16 countries around the world.  This year was the first such competition in Arizona at the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix where Charles Tadano was one of the participants.

“I got interested in primitive skills because I grew up on a farm near the Salt River, a former settled area filled with indigenous peoples for centuries and when we’d plow our fields, we’d often find artifacts and implements of those early days --- that’s what sparked my interest,” Tadano says.

Because the mission of the SALT group is to teach, share and practice skills that allowed ancient peoples to not only survive, but thrive, in their environments, between instructing neophyte throwers how to use the atlatl, SALT members demonstrated how to make a fire with just the materials at hand and how to make stone arrowheads by flintknapping or baskets and cordage using available plant fibers.

One display showed samples of different ways people in different parts of the world created their own version of a hook on a stick --- atlatls representing Aztec, Peruvian, Australian, Amazonian, and other cultures from around the globe.

For further information about atlatls, how to throw them, and how to join next year’s competition, contact The World Atlatl Association, www.worldatlatl.org.

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