Men designed and used deadly advanced weapon systems thousands of years before firearms existed. Even before the bow and arrow, man’s intelligence provided the solution to the problem of how to subdue much larger, powerful, and faster beasts that were born with fang and claw. Archaeologists know not when man first developed the spear-thrower, also known as the atlatl, but the earliest evidence of this weapon is from a site in France that dates to 19,000 years BP. The atlatl allowed man to extirpate or render extinct many large animals that reproduced too slowly to maintain a viable population when faced with an increase in mortality.
The atlatl seems simple but is a marvel of technology, considering what materials primitive men had available. The atlatl is basically a heavy short stick upon which a long spear is loosely attached. The stick affords extra leverage, enabling the spear to be thrown a greater distance and with more speed and velocity.
The atlatl is the lower object; the spear or dart is the upper object. Bob Perkins engineered this atlatl. It’s a replica of those found in the Great Basin which I believe includes Nevada and parts of California. The dart is made of aluminum. The Indians would’ve used a lightweight wood or bamboo.
This is the weight that adds stability to throws. It’s held on to the atlatl with sinew.
This is the bone hook upon which the dart is loosely attached before a throw.
The handle of the atlatl. The thrower puts their thumb and middle finger between the straps.
I’m about to throw the spear. It wasn’t hard to launch competent-looking throws immediately.
After release. Who cares what the neighbors think? They already know I’m a weirdo.
Paleo-indians didn’t wear shirts. Why should I? It’s 100 degrees.
I found it quite easy to execute good-looking throws as soon as I began, and I’m only of slightly above average athleticism and dexterity. My throws averaged 30-40 yards which is far shorter than the world record which exceeds 800 feet. I haven’t had time to purchase a target yet, so after throwing the spear up and down the street, I tried aiming for the newspaper tube from about 25 feet away. I came close–putting it between the tube and the mailbox a couple times, but most of my throws sailed high. Possibly, the ideal range for me might be 50 feet.
There is youtube video of a 7 year old boy killing a deer with a spear thrown with the aid of an atlatl, but tough-skinned Pleistocene mammals must have posed a problem. Even heavy stone arrow heads might’ve bounced off the thick skin, especially that of the edentates such as giant armadilloes and ground sloths. The paleo-indians must’ve aimed their arrows at vulnerable spots. And there is evidence of this. There’s a kill site in Venezuala that suggests the Indians impaled a haplomastodon in the anus. This kind of wound would cause death through either blood-poisoning or bleeding, and men could track the animal until it died. In areas of the world where elephants are successfully protected from hunting, they tolerate the approach of humans to a reasonable distance. On one nature program (I can’t recall which one) a scientist was able to approach Asian elephants within spear-throwing range. When he got too close, the elephants merely turned their backs and kicked out as a warning. This behavior offered an easy target for a spear thrown up its buttocks and is evidence of how the kill site in Venezuala transpired.
The atlatl was an effective weapon. Even after bows and arrows were invented in North America about 3000 years ago, many Indians still used them, and Australian aborigines never had the need to invent them and used atlatls which they called woomeras. (Atlatl is an Aztec word. Aztecs used them to kill at least some Spanish conquistadors in their losing war.)
This entry is part 1. My series on atlatl adventures will be irregular, written after whenever I have a chance to experiment with my new toy.