About Darts, Atlatls, and Other Weaponry Systems

Atlatl hunting system and elements. At left, a hunter hurls a dart from atlatl (drawing by Ken Brown, TARL); center, atlatl handle fragment (Peabody Museum, Harvard University); right, pointed foreshafts from Ceremonial Cave (TARL Collections); bottom, atlatl replica (Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

The hafted bifaces found in Ceremonial Cave represent the "business end" of darts used in combination with wooden atlatls, or "throwing boards." An ancient technology developed in the Old World, atlatls, with their constituent darts, were the main weapon system in prehistoric Texas, used for at least 10,000 years until they were replaced by the bow and arrow. Based on accounts by Spanish and other explorers, use of the weapon continued into Historic times, however, in some areas including the Arctic, southeastern United States, southern California, and parts of Meso- and South America.

Simple in design, atlatls were an extremely effective and accurate tool. By extending the reach of the human arm by about 50 cm (18-20 inches), the atlatl allowed a hunter or warrior to throw a dart much farther and with more force than he could without it. Historic accounts attest to Aztec warriors using atlatl-thrown darts which reportedly were able to penetrate the light Spanish armor worn by Spanish conquistadors, killing many. The name, atlatl, comes to us from the Aztec word for this tool.

The atlatl is a short, often flat or round, wooden stick used to throw a lightweight spear or dart tipped with a stone point. The hand-held end of the atlatl may contain leather or cording finger loops to help secure the grip. The distal end of the device typically was modified with a small prong and/or deep groove to hold the dart in place. Atlatls recovered from some sites have a stone, or weight, attached; the function or advantage of this sort of attachment is much debated.

Darts propelled from this device were made in two parts: a long main shaft made of a long, straight, piece of wood, desert flower stalk, or hollow cane, and a short foreshaft usually made of wood. In some cases, the wooden foreshaft was trimmed to a sharp tip; in others, a chipped-stone point was tightly fastened with wrappings typically made of animal sinew (the elastic tendon attached to muscles) to the end of the foreshaft. The other end of the foreshaft fit snugly into the end of the hollow end of the main shaft.

The dart, placed in a position parallel to the long axis of the atlatl and secured by the hook or spur, was released by a powerful overhead swing of the arm. Hurled to its target, the dart would penetrate the animal, wounding or killing it.

Experiments by archeologists using replicated weapons indicate atlatls could increase range by more than 40% over hand-thrown spears, and with as much as 65% greater force. Most archeologists admit that increased skill, however, comes only with years of practice. Ethographic accounts of Australian hunters report throws ranging from 60 to 90 meters with use of atlats, far greater that those achieved with handthrown spears (15 to 25 meters). This increased range and velocity made altatls highly effective killing devices and accounts for their usage throughout much of our prehistory.

 

Hunters in pursuit of prey hurl stone-tipped wooden darts propelled by an atlatl. Painting by Nola Davis, courtesy of Lubbock Lake Landmark.
As shown in the graphic, the atlatl has a hook at one end and a handle on the other end. The hook is angled so that when the arm is extended, the dart or spear is released and hurled forward. Drawing by Ken Brown. Enlarge for detail.
Atlatl handle fragment. Photo courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University.
Materials for constructing an atlatl and dart. Enlarge to see full graphic. Drawing by Jack Johnson

Weapons for Small Game

The atlatl and dart weapon system was more suitable (or needed) for hunting large game animals such as deer, bighorn sheep, and bison. For smaller animals, hunters used snares, traps, or less complex weapons, including sharpened wooden darts, which could be thrown or jabbed as spears. Curved wooden throwing sticks, or “rabbit sticks,” also could be hurled at small game. In concept, they are not unlike the Australian boomerang, although rabbit sticks do not return to the sender. Also, known as fending sticks, the curved sticks may been used as weapons, for warding off blows in battle. The specimens shown at right could have been used for these and other purposes. The stick shown on left has been made into a wrench used for straightening spear or dart shafts. The two specimens at far rightare unusually large for rabbit sticks.

Hunters also employed wooden bunts, rather than sharp dart points, to dispatch some types of prey.  Hafted to the end of a weapon, a wooden bunt effectively stunned the animal without damaging the animal’s valuable fur or feathers. It could then be dispatched with a subsequent blow from a rabbit stick or other weapon, or by strangulation.

The shift from the atlatl and dart to the bow and arrow ca. between A.D 500-1000 was a change in weapons technology that occurred across all of North America. The greater efficiency, range, and mobility provided by bow and arrow technology no doubt made it a preferred weaponry system.

With the well-preserved perishable specimens from Ceremonial Cave and other sites in similar arid settings, researchers are able to form a more complete picture of the weapons and hunting technologies used by prehistoric peoples, including how the various devices were made and how they were employed. Some were elegant in their simplicity, others involved a more intricate system of multiple parts. With studies underway on addtional specimens, a great deal more can be learned about the ingenuity and culture of the Ceremonial Cave craftsmen.

Curved wooden throwing or fending sticks. Enlarge for detail. TARL Collections.
Wooden bunts from Ceremonial Cave. These weapons could be used to stun prey without penetrating the skin. TARL Collections.