“Atlatl” is a word of ambiguous origin, attributed to the Nahua (Mexica, Aztec). An atlatl is a dart-thrower: a tool by which leverage is used to throw a dart (a light, flexible spear) more effectively than by hand. Atlatls have been used around the world and across time. The oldest known examples are ~15,000 years old and recovered from France, although they may have existed for as much as twice that long. The oldest complete atlatl in North America is from the NV-Wa-197 shaft cave site along the shore of Lake Winnemucca, Nevada. It is approximately ~8,000 years old.
How does it work?
All atlatls have an attachment point-this can be a spur or concavity to somehow engage the dart. In most cases this is a “Male” spur which couples to a “Female” nock at the rear of the dart. The dart nock is held against the spur of the atlatl, and the atlatl is brought forward toward the target, with a final wrist-snap and a follow-through. This throwing motion is not dissimilar from throwing a ball.
An atlatl works by leverage – by increasing the throwing radius of the user’s wrist. This allows the tip of the atlatl to move much faster than the fingertips of the hand. In simple physics terms, if two points, A and B, are connected to a common axis with A closer to the fulcrum (Point of rotation) and B further away, when rotated around the axis, B will always move faster than A. In the real world, one can think of the wrist as the fulcrum, the tips of the fingers as point A, and the spur of the atlatl as point B.
The atlatl is not the ancestor of the bow, it’s mechanics are completely distinct – the atlatl is not a “Proto-bow”. The bow and arrow makes use of spring-energy storage, while the atlatl functions by radius extension of the wrist. Some have suggested that the dart springs away from the spur in the final moments of the throw, making the atlatl an energy storage weapon, however high speed photography reveals the dart leaving the atlatl spur fully flexed. The flexibility of the dart allows for the displacement of its tail end during the rise and fall of the spur in the throwing motion.
Why study Native American atlatls?
In recent decades the atlatl has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity. There is great interest among many people in using the atlatl for target sport and for hunting. There is a lot to be learned from the ancients, those who refined this system initially, so we aren’t all constantly “Reinventing the wheel”. That’s concern one, concern two is understanding. The atlatl was an integral part of the pre-contact Native American worldview, and deserves to be understood as well as possible. There are many subtleties in production methods, measurement systems, burial customs, hunting strategy, etc. which could ultimately be inferred though careful analysis of atlatl artifacts.