What is an atlatl?

Atlatls are ancient weapons that preceded the bow and arrow in most parts of the world and are one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions. The word atlatl (pronounced at-latal or atal-atal) comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec, who were still using them when encountered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Other words include spear-thrower, estolica (Spanish), propulseur (French), speerschleuder (German) and woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian terms).

An atlatl is essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that engages a light spear or “dart” on the other. The flipping motion of the atlatl propels a light spear much faster and farther than it could be thrown by hand alone.

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An assortment of Atlatls by John Whittaker.  Click to enlarge.

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An assortment of atlatls by Chris Henry.  Click to enlarge.

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Actor portraying a Maya warrior on the set of The History Channel’s “Warriors: Maya Armegadon.” Photo by Tom Mills, 2009.

Most everybody’s ancestors used atlatls at some time in the past. The only continent with no record of atlatl use is Africa. Spear throwers were invented in the Upper Paleolithic period by early modern humans, who originated even earlier in Africa, so it is quite possible that we simply don’t have the evidence yet for early African spear throwers.

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Left: Upper Paleolithic replicas by Florent Rivere, France.  Photo by Pascal Chauvaux.  Right, Different forms of ethnographic Australian spearthrowers,  Photo by John Whittaker.  Click to enlarge.

The first known spear throwers come from European Upper Paleolithic sites in France and Spain. Most are from the Magdalenian period (ca 15,000 B.C.), with at least one example possibly from the earlier Solutrean. The surviving hook parts are carved out of ivory or reindeer antler, and the fancy ones are well-known examples of prehistoric art.

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Stone tipped foreshafts by John Whittaker.  Click to enlarge.

Early people in the Americas used atlatls to hunt the Pleistocene “megafauna” like mammoths and mastodons some 11,000 years B.C. Much later, a variety of atlatl types were in use in different part of North America. Many of the large stone projectile points found in American sites were used with atlatl darts, and are not “arrowheads.” The bow and arrow began replacing the atlatl around 1000 B.C., but atlatls continued to be used alongside bows into modern times in some areas, most notably Mexico and the Arctic. Bows and arrows are easier to use, and more ammunition can be carried, but atlatl and dart systems have some advantages. They can be used one handed, allowing the other hand to hold a shield in war, or a paddle in a kayak. They throw a heavier projectile, which is easier to attach to a line for harpooning, and they are less affected by wet conditions.

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Postcard, Australians with woomeras and spears, 1914.  Click to enlarge.

In recent times, spear throwers have been used by native peoples in Australia, New Guinea, South America, and the Arctic.

PDF of Australian Spearthrowers, Whittaker, 2010

For more detailed information on archeologic atlatls and darts of the americas, with an emphasis on the southwest and Great Basin, visit Justin Garnett and Devin Pettigrew’s Basketmakeratlatl.com.