Atlatl Flex Follows Form in Reproduced Basketmaker Systems

Devin Pettigrew

In The Atlatl, volume 26, number 2, pages 1-3

April 2013

An open question in atlatl function is the purpose of flexibility of the atlatl shaft. Cushing is the likely progenitor of a particular notion in early atlatl research (1895:342), which was expounded on in following studies (see Whittaker 2005:14-15); stating that the flexibility of the atlatl shaft adds velocity to the dart through spring action. This is presumed to be a fundamental step in the advancement of atlatl technology. Following this premise, one may look across the board of North American atlatl artifacts and presume that many of their individual characteristics were fundamentally shaped by the innovation of atlatl shaft flexibility.

However this is likely a false projection of Western outlooks onto artifacts of ancient and ‘other’ cultural origin. Many anthropologists of Cushing’s time thought of culture in terms of a theory called technological determinism, which ties culture to technological advancement on a linear time scale. This theory is no longer tenable on the whole. It is now apparent that culture shapes technology as much as technology shapes culture (Stout 2002).

Ultimately technological advancement has indeed generated some really nifty tools. Using such tools Whittaker and Maginnis captured images of the moment of separation of the dart nock from the spur of a flexible atlatl with it still in full flex (2006). Subsequently a few atlatlists have procured high speed film cameras, including Pascal Chauvaux of Belgium, David Colter of the UK, and John Whittaker of Iowa, and shared their findings with myself and others. The slow motion videos are leading to compelling insights into atlatl function.

WDC dart in groove

Curious, I constructed another reproduction of the White Dog Cave atlatl and darts and sent them to England to be tested with David’s camera. And more recently, John has filmed myself and Justin Garnett throwing reproduction Basketmaker systems. The results have mimicked his findings in 2006. Both the flexible atlatls and the darts remain flexed as the dart leaves the spur. The atlatl thus functions purely as a lever, not an energy storage weapon.

But if ‘spring-theory’ is out then what purpose does atlatl flex serve? Opening the mind to possibilities outside of strict technological innovation could produce new insights. A study of the artifacts may show fundamental variations in Basketmaker atlatl characteristics: Some of the atlatls have fairly short “loading grooves” along with upward curvature of the shaft (ex: White Dog Cave, Sand Dune Cave, Broken Roof Cave), while others have long grooves and little or no upward curvature (ex: Ceremonial Cave, Ten January Cave) (see Pettigrew and Whittaker 2012).

Upward curvature may be an aspect of operational preference. Adjustments in the orientation of the handle in angular relation to the dart shaft as it is held and thrown can be achieved through adjusting atlatl shaft curvature. Slight differences in the orientation of the handle lead to variations in muscle and joint alignment. However both straight and curved versions of Basketmaker atlatls exist in the archaeological record, and are fully functional when reproduced despite the user’s naturalization to a certain feel for how a specific system operates, and the preferences that may be derived therein. Upward curvature is also necessary in the presence of a short groove. Otherwise the dart nock is pried off the spur as its shaft contacts the base of the groove when the atlatl lies nearly parallel to it in the holding position (Figure 1).

Other general characteristic of Basketmaker atlatls are head space behind the spur, which is almost certainly stylistic, and mixed integral spurs (see Ferg and Peachy 1998:180), which lie flush or nearly flush with the upper surface of the headspace. Subsequently trial and error has shown that with both headspace behind the spur and upward curvature, if the atlatl body is rigid and does not straighten out or bend back slightly during the throw (Figure 2), the top of the dart nock contacts the head space partway through the throw and is pried off the spur, thus leading to premature separation of the nock from the spur. This means the throw is basically cut short, and power and control are drastically reduced. Therefore we observe that on atlatls featuring both significant upward curvature and headspace behind the spur, atlatl shaft flexibility is necessary for proper function. Cushing noticed several of these effects in his reproduction of the Grand Gulch atlatl (1895:340-342), but took it a step further by suggesting his ‘spring theory’. Here I suggest that at its root, atlatl flex is a product of form, rather than of function.

So let us construct a model of a particular cultural concept of what an atlatl and dart should be. In Basketmaker terms we like our dart throwers to have flat upper faces, rounded lower faces, and flaring towards a triangular distal end, thus symbolizing the whippy body of a snake (Pepper 1905:115-116). Perhaps unwittingly, we have shortened our loading grooves or the other folks have lengthened theirs from the original form. We give our atlatls upward curvature and make them a little flexible because that’s what an atlatl should be.

This model is highly simplified and purely speculative, but I’m hoping it will illustrate a point. The atlatl and dart is a highly customizable system, and individuals and groups will come to prefer variations on a theme. These equate to variations in form, or variations “chosen between functionally equivalent alternatives”, such as preferences for: style (aesthetics, symbolism), specific operational feel, and musculoskeletal/ergonomic alignment (gripping and throwing techniques). Function, or regulating variables, equate to adaptation within a bioregional niche (material availability and usage constraints) (see Hegemon 1992). Any interplay of these factors is possible. In naturalistic societies for instance, symbolism can be closely allied with bioregion.

However, some of the atlatls from North America likely to exhibit flex may not fit the above model. For instance the Hogup Cave atlatl from Utah has a long groove and no headspace behind the spur (Dailey and Petersen 1970). It also has little upward curvature, and is quite thin, but also wide and constructed of hard wood. It is questionable how much many of these atlatls would flex using light weight darts, which in 1948 Hill noticed was characteristic of most atlatl dart artifacts from North America. He has not been disproven, especially regarding darts associated with the thin atlatls in question. However it is certainly possible that flex in itself was a specific sought, or naturalized characteristic of form, rather than a necessary byproduct of other characteristics of form.

Some atlatlists have suggested atlatl flex makes the throw smother and more controllable. Others claim to notice an increase in velocity. Extending the period of contact between the spur with the nock during the throw may be the source of the additional velocity, but a counter argument suggests the displacement actually robs energy (Cotterell and Kamminga 1992:166-170). I have experimented with atlatls of varying degrees of flexibility and noticed that greater flexibility requires lighter dart spine, potentially supporting the latter. But are any of these variables of function? These effects likely cater to specific setups, many of which are adaptable to a similar range of uses by the human body and mind. In other words, the variations between flexible or inflexible atlatls can be “functionally equivalent” when paired with variations in other parts of the system. Garnett has noticed that his Basketmaker darts are not as easy to throw with stiff atlatls, but this could be overcome by switching to different darts (personal communication 2012). The variation between the darts can be slight; certainly not significant enough to implicate material availability or usage constraints within the regions in question. As with atlatl weights (Pettigrew 2012), I therefore suggest that independent of its specific role, be it byproduct or other, atlatl flex is a characteristic of form. With the atlatl, an extension of one’s self, that which caters to the mind is likely to be reinforced.

References Cited:

Cotterell, B., & Kamminga, J.

1992  Mechanics of Pre-industrial Technology: An introduction to the mechanics of ancient and traditional material culture. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Cushing, Frank H.

1895  The Arrow. American Anthropologist 8(4):307-349.

Dalley, Gardiner F. and Kenneth L. Peterson

1970  Appendix X, Additional Artifacts from Hogup Cave. In Hogup Cave, by C. M. Aikens, pp. 283-286. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Ferg, Alan and William D. Peachey

1998  An atlatl from the Sierra Pinacate. The Kiva 64(2):175-200.

Hegmon, Michelle

1992  Archaeological research on style. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:517-536.

Hill, Malcolm W.

1948  The atlatl or throwing stick, a recent study of atlatls in use with darts of various sizes. Tennessee Archaeologist 4, 37-44.

Pepper, George H.

1905  The Throwing-stick of a Prehistoric People of the Southwest. Eschenbach Printing Company, Easton, Pennsylvania.

Pettigrew, Devin B.

2012  Atlatl Weights: A function of preference for specific gripping and throwing techniques. Electronic document,, accessed December 12, 2012.

Pettigrew, Devin B. and John C. Whittaker

2012  North American Atlatl Artifact List. Electronic document,, accessed December 17, 2012.

Stout, Dietrich

2002  Skill and Cognition in Stone Tool Production: An ethnographic case study from Irian Jaya. Current Anthropology 43(5):693–722.

Whittaker, John C.

2010  Weapon Trials: The atlatl and experiments in hunting technology. In Designing Experimental Research in Archaeology: Examining technology through production and use, edited by Jeffrey R. Ferguson, pp. 1995-224. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Whittaker, John C. and A. Maginniss

2006 Atlatl Flex: Irrelevant. The Atlatl 19(2):1-3.

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