Carved atlatl at the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.
Depiction of an atlatl

An atlatl (Classical Nahuatl: ahtlatl [ˈaʔtɬatɬ]; English: /ˈɑːt.lɑːtəl/[1] or /ˈæt.lætəl/) or spear-thrower is a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in dart-throwing.

It consists of a shaft with a cup or a spur at the end that supports and propels the butt of the dart. The atlatl is held in one hand, gripped near the end farthest from the cup. The dart is thrown by the action of the upper arm and wrist, using the atlatl as a low-mass, fast-moving extension of the throwing arm. The atlatl acts as a lever that trades force for speed (the inverse of "leverage" as the term is commonly used).

Common ball throwers (molded plastic shafts used for throwing tennis balls for dogs to fetch) use the same principle.

A traditional atlatl is a long-range weapon and can readily achieve speeds of over 150 km/h (93 mph).[2]



Atlatl designs may include improvements such as thong loops to fit the fingers, the use of flexible shafts, stone balance weights and thinner, highly flexible darts for added power and range. Darts resemble large arrows or thin spears and are typically from 1.2 to 2.7 meters (4 to 9 feet) in length and 9 to 16 millimetre (3/8” to 5/8”) in diameter.

Another important improvement to the atlatl's design was the introduction of a small weight (between 60 and 80 grams) strapped to its midsection. Some atlatlists maintain that stone weights add mass to the shaft of the device, causing resistance to acceleration when swung, which results in a more forceful and accurate launch of the dart. Other atlatlists claim that atlatl weights add only stability to a cast which results in greater accuracy.

Based on previous work done by William S. Webb, William R. Perkins claims that atlatl weights, commonly called "bannerstones," are artifacts characterized by a centered hole in a symmetrically shaped carved or ground stone, shaped wide and flat with a drilled hole a little like a large wingnut, are a rather ingenious improvement to the design that created a silencing effect when swung, lowering the frequency of the telltale "zip" of an atlatl in use to a more subtle "woof" sound that did not travel as far and was less likely to alert prey or other humans. Robert Berg’s theory is that the bannerstone was carried by hunters as a spindle weight to produce string from natural fibers gathered while hunting, for the purpose of tying on fletching and hafting stone or bone points.


ceremonial atlatl
Peru 0-300 A.D.
Lombards Museum

Wooden darts were known at least since the Middle Paleolithic (Schöningen, Torralba, Clacton-on-Sea and Kalambo Falls). While the spearthrower is capable of casting a dart well over 100 meters, it is most accurately used at distances of 20 meters or less. Seven spears were found in the Schöningen 13 II-4 layer, dating from about 400,000 years ago and thought to represent activities of Homo heidelbergensis.[3] The atlatl was used by early Native Americans as well. It seems to have been introduced during the immigration across the Bering Land Bridge, and despite the later introduction of the bow, atlatl use was widespread at the time of first European contact. Complete wooden spearthrowers have been found on dry sites in the western USA, and in waterlogged environments in Florida and Washington.

The people of New Guinea and Australian Aborigines also use spearthrowers. Australian Aboriginal spearthrowers are known as woomeras.

As well as its practical use as a hunting weapon, it may also have had social effects. John Whittaker, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, suggests the device was a social equaliser in that it requires skill rather than muscle power alone. Thus women and children would have been able to participate in hunting,[2] although in recent Australian Aboriginal societies spearthrowers are in fact restricted to male use.

Modern times

In modern times, some people have resurrected the spearthrower for sports, often using the term atlatl, throwing either for distance and/or for accuracy. Throws of almost 260 m (850 ft) have been recorded.[4] Colleges reported to field teams in this event include Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, Alfred University in New York, and the University of Vermont.[5] There are numerous tournaments, with spears and spearthrowers built with both ancient and with modern materials. Similar devices are available to throw tennis balls for dogs to chase, and in the sport of jai alai.

Atlatl are sometimes used in modern times for hunting. There are meetings and events where people can throw darts.[6] A few examples of the locations of such competitions are in Oregon,[7] Rhode Island and in Kentucky[8] held yearly. In the U.S., the Pennsylvania Game Commission has given preliminary approval for the legalization of the atlatl for hunting certain animals.[9] The animals that would be allowed to atlatl hunters have yet to be determined, but attention is focused on deer. Currently, Alabama allows the atlatl for deer hunting, while a handful of other states list the device as legal for rough fish (those not sought for sport or food), some game birds and non-game mammals.[10] Starting in 2007, Missouri allowed use of the atlatl for hunting wildlife (excluding deer and turkey), and starting in 2010, also allowed deer hunting during the firearms portion of the deer season (except the muzzleloader portion).[11] Missouri also allows the use of the atlatl for fishing, with some restrictions (similar to the restrictions for spearfishing and bowfishing).[12]

The woomera is still used today by some Australian Aborigines for hunting in remote parts of Australia. Yup'ik Eskimo hunters still use the Atlatl, known locally as "nuqaq" (nook-ak), in villages near the mouth of the Yukon River for seal hunting.

Northeast Open Atlatl Championship

Chimney Point state historic site in Addison, Vermont hosts the annual Northeast Open Atlatl Championship. In 2009, the Fourteenth Annual Open Atlatl Championship will be held on Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20. On the Friday before the Championship, a workshop is open to teach modern and traditional techniques of atlatl and dart construction, flint knapping, hafting stone points, and cordage making.[13]

The World Atlatl Association stages an annual event of spear-throwing.[2]

See also


  1. ^ "atlatl". Retrieved October 12, 2006. 
  2. ^ a b c "Girls on top". The Economist. April 12 2008. Retrieved December 2010. 
  3. ^ Terberger, Thomas (2006). "From the First Humans to the Mesolithic Hunters in the Northern German Lowlands, Current Results and Trends". In Hansen, Keld Møller; Pedersen, Kristoffer Buck. Across the western Baltic. Sydsjællands Museums Publikationer Vol. 1. ISBN 87-983097-5-7. 
  4. ^ "The Atlatl". Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  5. ^ Jim Fennell, "A College Team Takes Aim", Parade 30 May 2010, p. 18
  6. ^ Thundebird Atlatl
  7. ^ An ISAC Competition at an Ancestral Living Skills Gathering
  8. ^ North American Atlatl Competition Events for 2009
  9. ^ "Pennsylvania May Let Hunters Use Prehistoric Weapon". 2005-11-13. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  10. ^ By J.R. AbsherSpecial to (Archive) (2006-06-21). "Spear near in Pennsylvania? from". Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  11. ^ Missouri Department of Natural Resources, 2010 Firearms Deer Hunting, [Columbia Missourian, Atlatl makes debut for Missouri deer season]
  12. ^ [Missouri Department of Conservation, Wildlife Code: Sport Fishing: Seasons, Methods, Limits]
  13. ^ Chimney Point State Historic Site — Atlatl Championship,


  • Nuttall, Zelia (1891). The atlatl or spear-thrower of the ancient Mexicans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. OCLC 3536622. 
  • D. Garrod, Palaeolithic spear throwers. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 21, 1955, 21-35.
  • W. Perkins, "Atlatl Weights, Function and Classification", Bulletin of Primitive Technology, No. 5, 1993.
  • U. Stodiek, Zur Technik der jungpaläolithischen Speerschleuder (Tübingen 1993).
  • W. Hunter, "Reconstructing a Generic Basket Maker Atlatl", Bulletin of Primitive Technology, No. 4, 1992.
  • H. Knecht, Projectile technology, New York, Plenum Press, 408 p., 1997, ISBN 0-306-45716-4

External links

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