Southwest rockart

The World Atlatl Art Album

Southwestern Rock Art

Atlatl Hunting with the Basketmakers

John Whittaker, Byl Bryce, and Chuck LaRue
The Atlatl 21(4):4-6.”

September 11, 2008

Among the mesas and canyons of the northern Southwest, a prehistoric people hunted and fought with our favorite weapon (Figure 1). The Basketmaker culture is the early part of the Anasazi sequence, ancestral to the puebloan cultures that in turn are ancestors of most modern southwestern tribes. The Basketmakers lived in pithouse villages and grew early corn and other crops. They often lived in dry rock shelters in canyons, or buried their dead there, where the arid southwestern climate has preserved basketry, sandals, cordage, and wooden artifacts. Atlatls are one of the characteristic artifacts of the Basketmakers and related cultures of the American Southwest. They were replaced by bows and arrows in the late part of the Basketmaker sequence, around 700 AD according to most accounts. Basketmaker atlatls were the first archaeological atlatls recognized in this country. Early explorations and modern archaeology have produced extensive Basketmaker collections, and we have more archaeological atlatls from the southwest than from any other part of the world. There are at least 70 documented specimens in various states of preservation, plus an unknown number unavailable for study in private hands.

Although details vary, the basic form of the Basketmaker atlatl is quite consistent (Figure 2). They are thin, flat strips of hardwood, with a hook carved at the end of a groove. They are notched for a split-finger grip, and on many specimens, elaborate finger loops of hide survive. Often there is a small stone weight or fetish, or other decoration such as feathers bound to the shaft just distal to the finger loops. We know less about the darts, of which only fragments usually survive. They were usually compound shafts of willow or other light wood, fletched in a variety of arrangements, and armed with a hardwood foreshaft holding a moderate sized stone point. They tended to be short by modern standards, around 150 cm (5 ft).

The surviving atlatls are usually beautifully made. The wood is accurately worked, finished to remove traces of manufacture, and polished from use. The finger loops are much more complex than seems necessary to us, and a number of specimens are decorated or carefully repaired. Atlatls were occasionally buried with the dead, and as important weapons that were highly valued, they surely had symbolic importance as well. In fact, atlatls are common in the rock art in some parts of the southwest. The Atlatl Rock at Valley of Fire, familiar to many WAA members, is one example. During our recent expedition, we decided to focus on depictions from the canyons and mesas of southeast Utah. This is the source area for several archaeological atlatls, and Basketmaker rock art is also common.

Identifying atlatls in southwestern rock art is not as easy as it should be. The rather common straight line with an oval at one end could depict either the Basketmaker looped atlatl, or a fletched dart. Sticking out of an animal, this is presumably a dart, but by itself or in the hands of an “anthropomorph” it is ambiguous (Figure 3). Rock art is not usually full of details or photographically faithful to reality, and images of atlatlists in action are surprisingly rare. As it turned out, we found some interesting patterns.

A panel we called the Long Dart Panel in a canyon on Cedar Mesa is a good example of one repeated type of atlatl image. At this site, all the images are petroglyphs (pecked into) the sandstone wall. Figure 4 shows two sets of paired darts with atlatls, drawn about life size (atlatl 39 cm long). Because atlatls are shown with darts, it is possible to see how at least some artists distinguished them. Here the pair to the right are 172 and 133 cm long, with fletchings 20 and 15 cm long. At the base of both fletchings the line is thick and diffusely pecked, apparently to represent the downy part of the feather (Figure 5). Only one dart of the other pair shows this, but we see the same convention at other sites. Neither dart has a point shown. At some other sites, a large triangular or barbed stone point is clearly depicted, consistent with the points found in Basketmaker sites (Figure 6). At Long Dart Panel the atlatl with the right pair of darts ends in a vague blob, with no hook or groove visible. In some other atlatl images the artist has tried to indicate a widened end or a hook and groove.

The most common atlatl-related image is the impaled animal motif. Most often these are bighorn sheep. The Basketmaker folk must have hunted deer as often as sheep, and some images show them, but bighorn sheep were evidently more important symbols, although they were probably also more common then than now. Such images are often interpreted as hunting magic: an impaled sheep led to a successful hunt. They could equally well be the record of a kill, or refer to a well-known mythological story. Sometimes they may relate to fertility and increase of game as well, since they are often accompanied by images of the flute player, with or without erect penis, corn and other plant images, and occasionally human or animal copulation scenes.

Sometimes the impaled animal is part of a more elaborate scene. The images at another Cedar Mesa site we call the Hunt Panel are a good example (Figures 1, 7). Two scenes on the same panel show lines of sheep with successful hunters. The bottom hunter is making a throw, with two darts (although short and no different from the atlatl depiction) in his other hand. The atlatl in his hand appears to be launching a long line, partly natural in the rock and partly enhanced by pecking, that runs through the whole panel and is probably intended to be a symbolic dart, although the artist did not add feathers.

Animals were not the only targets. One Basketmaker site, excavated in the 19 th century, contained about 70 bodies of a group who died violently, some with stone points embedded in them. There are also rock art depictions of trophy heads. Figures 8 and 9 shows crude but graphic examples of atlatl violence.

We intend to continue this research. In the patterns of atlatl and dart depictions in Basketmaker rock art, and the other kinds of images found with them, we can begin to tease out some of the symbolic uses and feelings that Basketmakers had about this important technology. We will post this paper on the WAA webpage with additional images, and we would like to start a portfolio of rock art atlatls on the page. We encourage anyone with images to send them. We intend to focus on the southwest, but would like to showcase atlatl rock art from anywhere.


Atl Fig 1 Johns Cnyn Hunt Panel-context

The Hunt Panel, typical Basketmaker rock art on a boulder overlooking a canyon mouth in southeast Utah.

Atl Fig 2 BM Atlatls

Basketmaker type atlatls. At top is a petroglyph depiction. The archaeological specimen center shows typical complex finger loops made of leather folded around a fiber core and fastened to the atlatl with lashings of leather and sinew. Bottom photograph shows variation in the distal hook and groove (replicas by LaRue of several archaeological specimens).

Atl Fig 3 Tilted Boulder atlatlist-ed

A Basketmaker anthropomorph petroglyph with dart and atlatl. The bird head or headdress is not uncommon.

Atl Fig 4 Long Dart ed

Paired darts and atlatls at Long Dart Panel. Long dart to right is 172 cm long.

Atl Fig 5 Copy of Dart drawn

Typical dart petroglyph showing treatment of feathers.

Atl Fig 6 Copy of Hunt scene drawn

Atlatlist hunting mountain sheep. The dart in flight has a side-notched point consistent with some Basketmaker specimens.

Atl Fig 7 Johns Cnyn Hunt Panel-zoom

Hunt Panel main scene. Note the association with a flute player and a pregnant woman, although these may be later additions.

Atl Fig 8 Hidden Village panel JT ed

Two duck-headed Basketmakers engaging in atlatl battle. (Courtesy Jon Till).

Atl Fig 9 Copy of Ol Neck Shot drawn

The painful results of atlatl violence.

1 Grand Falls Ogre panel JW ed

Little Colorado River, 1

2 Grand Falls Big Hunt panel ed

Little Colorado River, 2

3 Grand Falls darted sheep on big panel 4 Rats ed

Little Colorado River, 3

4 Grand Falls atlatl bird hunter ed

Little Colorado River, 4

5 Grand Falls darted trader

Little Colorado River, 5

6 Grand Falls  bear, darted sheep ed

Little Colorado River, 6

7 Grand Falls Ogre panel (JW)

Little Colorado River, 7

8 Grand Falls hunting kangaroo rats ed

Little Colorado River, 8.

1-8 Little Colorado River, N. Arizona. This is a zone where figures typical of the Anasazi Basketmaker rock art further north overlaps with more generic Sinagua designs.

1 and 7 show the “Ogre,” a large anthropomorph holding a dart or staff and being attacked by rows of stick figures on both side. Perhaps this depicts one of the many stories about the destruction of monsters. The stick figure humans are not very distinctive and could be later additions; the sheep pecked over the ogre’s chest certainly are. However, they are not using bows, and form a consistent composition. Other panels in this area include figures of different ages, as in (3), including some using bows as in (8) which is an unusual depiction of small game, probably kangaroo rats. Is there a special meaning to 4 rats facing two different enemies, man and snake?  The broad shouldered anthropomorphs are expected to be early and associated with atlatls, and the mountain sheep with darts in them are common motifs. The creatures with large clawed feet in 2 and 6 are probably bears, much less usual.

9 M Crk Cottonwood Grove LaRue

9, Cottonwood Grove

10 M Crk Cottonwood Grove atlatlist

10, Cottonwood Grove

11 M Crk Hidden Village panel ed

11, Hidden Village

12 M Crk Hidden Village atl batl

12, Hidden Village

13 Up Butler 3Duels elab BM ed


14 Up Butler 3Duels N1 ed


15 Up Butler 3Duels N3 ed


16 Up Butler atlatl battle ed


18 Up Butler BM anthros, Geo sheep ed


20 Up Butler Geo sheep w BM super ed


21 Up Butler ManyDarts ed


22 Up Butler ornate BMs ed


23 Walker Canyon panel distant


24 Walker C Birdhead slew him ed


25 Above Moab golf course edited


26 Sand Island atlat ed


27 Sand Island arrows ed


28 Marsh Pass 1 WRHaas ed


29 Marsh Pass 4 WRHaas ed


30 Marsh Pass panorama Haas ed by Bryce


31 Moqui Cnyn UT WRHaas ed


9-31 come from various sites along the N edge of Arizona and in the SE corner of Utah, and are mostly typical of Basketmaker rock art. Anthropomorphs, often large, with broad bodies and wide shoulders, frequently with elaborate head dresses or birds are typical. In this area of the Basketmaker culture, they are not only associated with atlatls, darts, and game, but often with depictions of violence (10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 24). Individual atlatls are sometimes shown in detail (25, 26), and darts may be simple or elaborated with a dot in the center of the fletching (19) or distinctive feathers (21). Sometimes it is hard to tell whether you are seeing an arrow or a dart impaling an animal, but later depictions of arrows are also sometimes carefully detailed (27). Both dating and interpretation of most panels is confused because figures of different ages were added through a long period of use, as in 20 where a broad-shouldered Basketmaker figure has been pecked over a “Geometric Style” sheep which is probably of Archaic age. Randi Haas contributed 28-31, the last being a less common pictograph in which the Basketmaker anthropomorph carries darts and/or atlatl, plus what appears to be a bag. In some cases, similar figures carry trophy heads. Other photos were taken by Whittaker, Bryce, and LaRue.