Nicolarson Cave (site NV-Wa-197), Nevada

The NV-Wa-197 Atlatl; Boatstones, Grips and Fulcrum Points on Early Archaic Atlatls

By Devin Pettigrew



Between 1960 and 61 a group of relic hunters from Reno, Nevada systematically looted a vertical shaft cave along the shores of Lake Winnemucca. Upon discovery the cave was full of debris, countless artifacts, and the remains of interred individuals, the bones of whom littered the ground outside the opening after the digging. Though much was destroyed, one collector took rough notes and drew a simple profile of the site, noting the locations of what he deemed were important artifacts.

Among them was the atlatl in question. Found roughly 16 feet down at the bottom of the deposits, it was constructed of a round limb, slightly worked and fitted with a long, narrow boatstone and bone hook via sinew lashings. Basketry from a separate cache located on top of the atlatl was radio-carbon dated to 7980 ± 610 B.P., indicating the atlatl was roughly 8,000 years old (Hester 1974:2). The NV-Wa-197 artifact is the oldest intact atlatl in North America, and interestingly enough it provides the only example of an attached boatstone.

In replicating Basketmaker atlatls and darts of the Southwest’s Late Archaic, which have been found in association and can be reconstructed as a complete, matching set, the attached weights carefully balance the darts they are paired with. Such fine tuning of balance makes holding and throwing the dart relaxed and comfortable. After making a replica of the NV-Wa-197 atlatl (figure 1) I realized that this earlier culture had chosen such a design for the same reasons.

Figure 1: Replica of the NV-Wa-197 atlatl. Allely suggests the atlatl was painted red and black in the manner depicted. Though the slate boatstone is also suggested to have been painted black, the boatstone on the replica is of catlinite, a gift from Russell Richard of Wyoming, and I decided not to paint it. Thanks Russell!

First we should consider grip configuration. Not far from the proximal end of the weight the stick curves upward slightly. Here it was worked into a roughly rectangular cross section with 18 incised grooves spanning 7.6 cm near the proximal end. These grooves provide friction for the grasping fingers, with the last three fingers forming the primary anchor. In this way the thumb and index finger are free to lightly pinch the dart in holding, and more importantly, the atlatl shaft floats freely between them during the throw and follow-through (figure 2). This allows for greater play of motion (literally wiggle room) resulting in a smoother throw when using a weighted atlatl with a hammer grip. The slight upward curvature at the handle is also helpful in orienting the fulcrum point so that the wrist is slightly cocked back in holding, increasing its range of motion during the throw.

Figure 2: Gripping techniques for holding and throwing with the NV-Wa-197 atlatl. Illlustration by the author.

It is also important to note the small size of the bone spur relative to what many of us prefer today. With a working height of 5mm, this spur is comparable in size to many examples from North America’s Late Archaic. Though no examples of the darts that belong with this atlatl have survived, the spur size may be used in conjunction with the heft and placement of the weight to form a rough estimate of dart size. For myself, what subsequently balances and functions best with this atlatl is a narrow, fairly light dart. Such a projectile is also comparable in size to Late Archaic darts. Though the weight might appear heavy, being narrow and placed close to the handle it is as much an acceptable and comfortable accessory as those found on later Basketmaker artifacts.

With this grip design the attachment of an atlatl weight close to the handle, to balance the dart near the end of the handle and allow the throw to be made with a relaxed wrist, is quite effective, and certainly indicative of Late Archaic atlatl gear. In all cases across the globe, it is apparent that cultures have refined their atlatl and dart systems to suit their needs and sentiments. In the North American archeological record, it’s interesting to see the same design concepts reasserting themselves across wide spatial, temporal, and cultural bounds.

NV-Wa-197 is archeological code talk for the 197th site to be catalogued in Winnemucca Co., Nevada. “Nevada-Winnemucca-197”.



Allely, Steve

1992 Great Basin Atlatls: Notes from the N.W. Corner. Bulletin of Primitive Technology 1(4):48-56.

Cressman, Luther S.

1977 Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished Peoples. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Hester, Thomas R.

1974 Archaeological Materials from Site NV-Wa-197, Western Nevada: Atlatl and Animal Skin Pouches. Contributions of the University of California Archaeological Research Facility 21:1-43.

Hester, Thomas R., Michael P. Mildner and Lee Spencer

1974 Great Basin Atlatl Studies. Ballena Press Publications in Archeology, Ethnology and History No. 2, Romana.


Dimensions of NV-Wa-197 atlatl

Length overall

58.1 cm

of bone spur

62.5 mm

of slate boatstone

18.9 cm

of grooved section of handle

7.6 cm

Width (horizontal) at proximal end

18 to 18.5 mm

at distal end

Averages 15 mm

of slate boatstone

10 to 14 mm

Thickness (vertical) at proximal end

14 mm

at distal end

Averages 12 mm

Height of bone spur (from base)

9 mm

of bone spur (working tip)

5 mm

of slate boatstone

16 to 20 mm

Dimensions taken from Hester (1974:2-3). Height of spur working tip and length of grooved section of handle determined using scaled photograph of the artifact, also from Hester.



Note: Wood species of the atlatl shaft is unidentified. Spencer (Hester et al 1974:38-42), suggests it to be either greasewood (Sarcobatus sp) or sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate), though he has difficulty finding straight pieces of the later, and apparently never searches out the former. The shaft of the replica here is an eastern variety of ash (Fraxinus sp), which is fairly hard and consistently produces straight shoots and branches with long, knot-free sections. This allowed the best shape and dimensions to match the artifact to be chosen within the natural parameters of a peeled limb. Also, the bark peels easily during wet periods in spring and summer, and the naked wood cracks very little as it dries.

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