Survival Saturday: Getting to know the atlatl

As many of you are roaming the woods armed with a bow, there are some folks who take the “primitive” part of the pre-firearms season to the extreme – using an atlatl and spear combination to hunt for game of all sizes. For those who are unfamiliar with an atlatl, it is a trough-like piece of wood or bone that gives a person additional leverage when throwing a spear.

From the World Atlatl Association:

Atlatls are ancient weapons that preceded the bow and arrow in most parts of the world and are one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions. The word atlatl (pronounced at-latal or atal-atal) comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec, who were still using them when encountered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Other words include spear-thrower, estolica (Spanish), propulseur (French), speerschleuder (German) and woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian terms).

An atlatl is essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that engages a light spear or “dart” on the other. The flipping motion of the atlatl propels a light spear much faster and farther than it could be thrown by hand alone.

Most everybody’s ancestors used atlatls at some time in the past. The only continent with no record of atlatl use is Africa. Spear throwers were invented in the Upper Paleolithic period by early modern humans, who originated even earlier in Africa, so it is quite possible that we simply don’t have the evidence yet for early African spear throwers.

The first known spear throwers come from European Upper Paleolithic sites in France and Spain. Most are from the Magdalenian period (ca 15,000 B.C.), with at least one example possibly from the earlier Solutrean. The surviving hook parts are carved out of ivory or reindeer antler, and the fancy ones are well-known examples of prehistoric art.

Early people in the Americas used atlatls to hunt the Pleistocene “megafauna” like mammoths and mastodons some 11,000 years B.C. Much later, a variety of atlatl types were in use in different part of North America. Many of the large stone projectile points found in American sites were used with atlatl darts, and are not “arrowheads.” The bow and arrow began replacing the atlatl around 1000 B.C., but atlatls continued to be used alongside bows into modern times in some areas, most notably Mexico and the Arctic. Bows and arrows are easier to use, and more ammunition can be carried, but atlatl and dart systems have some advantages. They can be used one handed, allowing the other hand to hold a shield in war, or a paddle in a kayak. They throw a heavier projectile, which is easier to attach to a line for harpooning, and they are less affected by wet conditions.

While it takes a lot of practice to achieve hunting accuracy, it can be done. A Missouri hunter harvested a 15 point buck last season, which would be a fantastic deer with a rifle, let alone one of the oldest hunting tools known to primitive man.


From WideOpenSpaces:

A 12 foot ladder stand perched just over a trail was his position the evening of October 24th. At 3:30 this buck crossed a creek and walked directly under his stand, then walked out to eight yards. The motion required to launch an atlatl dart is significant, so he waited until the deer turned his head to groom himself to throw.

The dart tipped with a two bladed broadhead struck just behind the shoulder with almost no effort and buried itself 11 inches deep. The buck ran off, snapping the exposed section of the dart off. At forty yards he began to stumble, then fell dead.

Well done sir.

The atlatl is not out of the question as an improvised survival tool either.


For those who really want to geek out, watch this, The video series is kid of dry, but the maker knows what he is talking about and makes some good looking tools.

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Survival Saturday: Getting to know the atlatl

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