Atlatl Weights: A function of preference for specific gripping and throwing techniques

Devin Pettigrew


In rare instances in the archeological record perishable materials like wood and fiber are preserved under dry rock shelters, in a bog or thick, wet clay where oxygen cannot enter, or through some other medium. However most of what is handed down to us is composed of weatherable materials, such as stone and ceramics. Often cultures have created composite items composed of both weatherable and perishable materials. When one rots away, what’s left behind can be difficult to identify. Among these items are atlatl weights, or supposed atlatl weights.

Though much has been written on the function of atlatl weights, an overview of the literature proves inconclusive and confusing. We would suggest that weights are a byproduct of form, or a function of preference for specific aspects of atlatl and dart systems and how they correlate with muscle and joint orientation. The complexities of human body mechanics have likely been the cause of much of the confusion in past research. Our research has focused on the replication of rare finds in which the perishable portions of weighted atlatls have survived, and whole atlatls can be reconstructed with their weights attached in the proper position (See Replications section). Ideally this also involves reconstructing the darts that belonged with specific atlatls, as this can tell us more about balance points, throwing techniques, etc. The vast majority of such finds have come from the Western United States where drier conditions prevail. Affixing external weights to an atlatl shaft appears to be exclusive to North America, as no other atlatl weights, either affixed to a surviving atlatl or disassociated, have been identified elsewhere around the world.

Former research:

Many early researchers have expressed their initial observations on the confusing functionality of atlatls by interpreting what we can now identify as tuning issues (attaching weights, dart spine, etc.) or improper technique as facets of function. For instance, the earliest experimenter to directly publish his findings (Browne, 1940), reported the atlatl and dart to be entirely inaccurate. Though Browne focused on the complete atlatl artifacts of White Dog Cave in Arizona, materials and methods of construction were misrepresented, and his method of throwing lacked control (Whittaker, 2005:8-9; Dickson, 1985:10-11). Yet Browne bought into these initial experiences and used his findings to discuss ancient hunting technologies. Many researchers have followed suite, and discussed misguided thoughts based on inexperience and tuning issues, yet their works also contain many insightful inferences into atlatl function.

Some of the primary research into the use of atlatl weights has focused on functional advancement – essentially weight attachment as advancement in atlatl technology (Webb 1957; Bau 2002; Palter 1976). These studies have attempted to employ math and physics to explain the effects of adding weight to the atlatl, as both a lever and an energy storage weapon. As high speed photography is now showing the atlatl is no energy storage weapon (Whittaker and Maginniss 2006). More importantly these works do not account for the coupling of weights with specific variations in atlatl usage and body mechanics.

Several researchers have discussed atlatl weights as balance devices to counter dart weight, though only in holding – as a means to ease the stresses of holding up an atlatl and dart for prolonged periods while hunting (Allely 1992; Hill 1948; Peets 1960; See Dickson 1985:18-19). While this is certainly a benefit, balance points are also an important factor in tuning dart release angles with certain atlatl and dart setups (Garnett 2011b). These effects may be responsible for the increase or decrease in leverage while throwing for distance, as recorded by several experimenters who have studied atlatl weights in this fashion (Bau 2002; Hill 1948; Howard 1974; Mau 1963; Palter 1976; Peets 1960; Raymond 1986).

Finally, there have been debates or confusion as to whether weights are functional at all, or are rather charms or fetishes attached to ritually aid in hunting or for some other spiritual significance (See Dickson 1985:19). Indeed many atlatls were furnished with small, attractive or obviously ritually important stones best described as “charm stones”.

Figure 1. The Broken Roof Cave atlatl has both a small moonstone charm just above the loops, and larger, ground and polished weight attached above the mid-point of the shaft. Replica by the author.

Such attachments are usually placed close to the handle, and do not weigh enough to have a significant impact on overall atlatl weight (A good example of such an artifact is the Cave House Ruin Atlatl; See Pettigrew and Whittaker 2012). Many larger stones that can be considered weights are also made of attractive materials, well worked and polished. This can be confusing; as such stones not only function as weights but are also decorative and possibly spiritual. However, still others are more crude, or quite large, and placed in such a way that it would seem their primary purpose is to increase the weight of the atlatl (Good examples of such artifacts are Broken Roof Cave, Nine Mile Canyon, and “NC” Cave; See Pettigrew and Whittaker 2012).


As a lever, the overall function of an atlatl may seem simple. Yet the atlatl is an addition to a more complex lever involving the human arm and the rest of the body (Whittaker 2010:12). With the involvement of the “human element” function becomes complex, as many variables come into play with the addition of variations in muscle and joint orientation. Slight changes in these variations following individual user comfort and familiarity are also accountable.

Essential to the equation is the tuning of atlatl and dart parameters. All artifacts from North America point to the common use of darts ranging from 4.5 to 6 feet. This is important when considering the effects of adjusting the balance point for holding and throwing, as it is felt the attachment of external weights was primarily intended to do. While longer, heavier darts are difficult to balance without increasing the weight of the atlatl to the point that it is difficult to throw, lighter darts can be more effectively balanced within optimal parameters of atlatl weights and dimensions. Hill may have been the first to notice such effect, as well as the lack of heavier dart calibers in the North American archeological record (1948:40-42; See Peets 1960:109).

Figure 2. Karl Wolfe throwing heavy ash darts with a levering technique. Atlatl equipment by Thunderbird Atlatl. Photography by Kathy Wolfe.

The replications of whole atlatl and dart assemblages such as the White Dog Cave artifacts have provided excellent insights into the original intention of weight attachment. This system balances perfectly with its dart at the end of the handle, which produces a very comfortable setup to hold and throw with a loose, relaxed grip. With other North American atlatl artifacts, when they can be reproduced with matching darts, this aspect of finding the best balance point also holds true.

Some artifacts are peculiar in that a split-finger grip is employed with finger loops, yet a lower handle is missing, or is truncated—too small to be gripped by the lower fingers (Garnett 2011a) (Artifacts include Broken Roof Cave, McClure and Quiltanton Lake, Tsegi Canyon, Spring Creek Cave, Huck, and possibly others; See Pettigrew and Garnett 2011:1-4). Without the lower fingers putting pressure on the handle the throw cannot be made with a fully engaged wrist. These characteristics indicate a throwing technique in which centrifugal force plays a major roll; a technique effectively and regularly employed by Garnett with most assemblages.

Figure 3. Justin Garnett holding a weighted, truncated handle form Basketmaker atlatl, and throwing a light dart with a flinging technique.

To simplify explanation, gripping and throwing techniques may be placed in one of two provincial categories; those which utilize an engaged wrist in a levering action (figure 2), and those which utilize a relaxed wrist in a flinging action (figure 3). In the former balance is not so important, and atlatlists often prefer an un-weight atlatl to maximize leverage (Cotterell and Kamminga 1992:168). However in the latter balance points are critical, and are often placed in the vicinity of the proximal end of the atlatl. In other cases the lack of external weights should not be taken to directly indicate one or the other techniques, as it is also possible to adjust balance points by removing more or less material from the atlatl shaft, adjusting dart shaft weight, etc.

Also, many atlatlists, myself included, may fall somewhere between these categories and prefer to employ a combination of the two techniques, in which centrifugal force plays a role but the wrist is still partially engaged. In any case, even with the flinging technique the wrist is never completely relaxed, and an amount of force, however reduced, must be applied through it. This is indicated by the requirement for fairly stiff loops on the aforementioned, handle-less artifacts, which are under tension from the inserted fingers during the throw. Conversely, the most extreme levering technique should also employ an amount of flinging. As stated, heavier darts are difficult to balance without robbing energy from the throwing arm through an over-weighted atlatl. Levering, therefore, may be directly associated with heavier darts, and flinging with lighter darts (Robert Berg, personal communication 4/16/2012).

As most past experiments have been undertaken to determine effects on leverage, with accuracy being largely ignored, a quantitative experiment was recently undertaken to determine our accuracy with the two aforementioned throwing techniques (Pettigrew and Garnett 2011:4-6). After a month of daily throwing, it appeared that we were neither more nor less accurate with either technique, but that accuracy is derived from comfort and familiarity with a technique, assuming that a given system is properly tuned. In hindsight, it is not suggested that either throwing technique is superior but are rather functions of preference.

Cultural reasoning:

As noted by Stout (2002:694), technological organization is a system of directed actions and goal oriented skills carried out within the framework of a social system.  ~Weathermon  (2011:295)

Variations in atlatl usage and forms including the attachment of weights can be attributed to functional development within a social framework. Modern atlatlists have unwittingly contributed to this concept by experimenting with and forming their own, individual preferences for certain atlatl forms, including weight attachment. Depending on who you ask any number of reasons could come up for the advantages or disadvantages of weight attachment. However the atlatl has only recently been reintroduced into our culture as a quaint, antiquated device for experimental archeologists or hobbyists. In ancient times these preferences for specific atlatl forms and throwing techniques were developed and handed down through generations of people who placed great emphasis on the weapon, both spiritually and functionally, as a primary projectile weapon for warfare and subsistence.

At first it may seem that to explain away weight attachment as a development of social preference is taking the easy way out, however when we begin to consider the wide range of atlatl forms spread throughout the world, this should sound more logical. Though the atlatl has taken on a great many forms, only North America seems to have taken a liking to external weight attachment. It certainly seems foolhardy to believe that after so many generations only these cultures would have reached a heightened state of atlatl development. Looking closely, however, every specific form across the globe has its own quirky traits, which only generations of small, isolated social systems could produce, and yet every one was uniquely developed to function perfectly within a given niche.


With the inclusion of the “human element” into atlatl and dart mechanics, function of the system becomes complex. Past research into the function of atlatl weights has not accounted for variations in specific gripping and throwing techniques. When such variations are accounted for, individual and cultural preferences for specific variations in atlatl forms and their correlation with human body mechanics may explain the attachment of external weights to the atlatl shaft. These techniques may be placed in one of two simplified categories; levering with an engaged wrist, and flinging with a relaxed wrist. It is hoped that future research into atlatl function will study these concepts more fully.


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