Atlatls – A Historical Perspective
by Angelo Robledo
Fifteen thousand years ago, right here in southern Nevada, a bighorn sheep died. Now, this wasn’t a strange occurrence with the circle of life and everything but HOW this bighorn sheep died is the strange part. It was killed by a strange two-legged animal standing about 15 meters away wielding a strange stick-and-spear weapon. Oddly enough, at the same time, in New York, a woolly mammoth was killed by the same stick and spear weapon by the same two-legged animal.
And in northern France, ancient caribou is killed the same way. And in Australia, a kangaroo dies the same way. Now this two-legged animal was, of course, human, but the weapon they wielded was something the animal world had never seen before, an atlatl. The atlatl is a 30,000-year-old spear type weapon used by ancient man to hunt big game. Predating the bow by 15000 years, the atlatl was the first two-part weapon or tool system ever invented by man, and next to the gun, it is the most universal of all time, found on 6 continents.
Let’s look at some of the technological design elements that helped it to become one of
the ingenious weapons ever created. The first part of the design that needs to be examined is the fletching or feathers on the back of the dart. The feathers cause drag on the back of the dart allowing for a straight flight and stability, increasing its aerodynamics creating greater accuracy and velocity. This piece of the design obviously carried over into many projectile weapons today, like arrows and even rockets, who’s fins act the same way as fletching.
Even though archaeological evidence of atlatl use was prevalent, and archaeologists
found atlatl artifacts, no one was able to replicate the feats written about by the Spaniards. They were using thick stiff spears as the projectile and getting no more than 15 meter throws with almost no velocity and horrible accuracy, not the 80 meters written about with the accuracy and velocity to take down a mammoth or Spaniard.
In 1973 an archaeology/engineering double major at Montana State University named Robert ‘Atlatl Bob’ Perkins examined the atlatl from a physics standpoint after learning about it in one of his anthropology classes. He theorized that instead of a thick stiff spear, a thin flexible dart was necessary for a powerful flight. At the 1974 Montana State atlatl competition, he debuted his flexible dart model and shattered every accuracy and distance record at the time. He realized through applying Newton’s laws that the force of the throw would cause a stiff spear to go straight up and fish-tail because the weighted tip would resist motion. A flexible dart, however, would flex with the throw and store potential energy, releasing that energy at the apex of the flight, causing it to spring off the spur of the atlatl and keep itself straight in flight.
The next piece of engineering genius in the atlatl comes from the concept of the atlatl
itself. The atlatl system uses the idea that propelling a projectile from behind the center of gravity is more effective than propelling it from the midpoint like a javelin. This idea has translated itself into almost all projectile weapons since. If you think about it, an arrow is just a shrunken down atlatl dart. The bowstring goes into the back of the arrow and propels it from behind its center. The arrow also flexes and stores similar energy on a smaller scale as an atlatl and dart. Even firearms benefit from this, as the gunpowder goes behind the bullet pushing it forward.
Finally, the atlatl serves as an extension of your arm, creating a third arm segment that
uses leverage to transfer even greater energy into the back of the dart. All of these developments together created a weapon that shaped the development of mankind in a massive way, setting up the next 30,000 years of innovation and invention.
Atlatls are a key part of our history as a human and the universality of our development
and culture. Through understanding the history of this weapon, the genius of our ancestors in its design, and it’s translation into our modern society and culture, we are able to fully understand and appreciate our collective ancestry and what got us to the world of technological innovation.
we live in today.