Friday, May 18, 2012

Plains Atlatl

Northern Plains Atlatl Reproduction
This is a reproduction of a Northern Plains atlatl for Mount Royal University in Calgary.  This atlatl and a Dorset Palaeoeskimo harpoon will be used as examples of artifacts by anthropology professors in the classroom.  The atlatl didn't have to be functional, but a functional reproduction is a more accurate reproduction, so I chose to make something robust enough to stand up to years of wear and tear.  Besides, I had a bit of steam to blow off this week, so I spent a couple hours flinging darts around a nearby park to make sure everything worked properly.

It extends the throwers arm
In the above video, I had all of the parts duct taped in place to check that the spur and weight were properly fit.  It should give you some idea of how an atlatl works to fire a dart.  The atlatl extends a persons arm, greatly increasing the force and distance that they can put behind launching a projectile.  This was a major technological innovation over throwing a spear by hand.  The technology was phased out with the introduction of the bow and arrow in most places, although it never really disappeared.  In was used into historic times in the arctic because it could be operated from a sitting position with one hand, which made it perfect for use in a kayak to launch bird darts or harpoons.  Similarly, it was used in Mesoamerica for hunting birds on the water and pinning Spaniards into their armour, when the need arose.

Moving my body weight forward onto my right foot
The throw is fast and overhand

Shoulder, elbow, and wrist all snap forward to launch the dart
The dart should detach smoothly from the spur

Follow-through.  On this particular day I was throwing darts about 45-50 metres., which is at least 2 or 3 times farther than I can throw the same darts without the atlatl.

Wedge-shaped antler spur
There are a few perfectly preserved atlatls from arid regions south and west of the Great Plains and from frozen areas to the north, but I'm not aware of any complete preserved atlatls from the Plains themselves.  Atlatls are usually composite tools and occasionally the bone or antler spur or the stone weights will be recovered from archaeological sites.  I used a fairly simple wedge shaped antler tine for the spur, slightly countersunk into the wood and lashed in place with gut.  I used gut for all the lashings because it has a slightly more robust look than sinew and I feel that it works well for archaic reproductions and darts.  I didn't have to make any darts for this particular piece, but an atlatl dart is often built like an oversized arrow and since gut has the look of oversized sinew when it dries, I though it would be an appropriate material to use.

The spur fits into a shallow socket or dimple on the base of the dart, which would often be fletched, just like a big arrow.

A stone weight tied to the shaft
The atlatl weight that I used is made from argillite and is an elongated "boat-shaped" form based on weights found in the central and northern plains, as illustrated in Neuman's 1967 American Antiquity article; Atlatl Weights from Certain Sites on the Northern and Central Great Plains.  These weights would be tied in place along the body of the atlatl and for a while their function perplexed archaeologists.  Some people thought that they might help create momentum, but they didn't seem to improve the range or power of the darts propelled by atlatls.  Now, it seems likely that they are there to help balance the system.  When the dart is loaded into the atlatl and the hunter holds the atlatl in the ready position, the added weight can help balance the atlatl and dart together.  Without a weight, a heavy dart will pull the front of the system down and it becomes very uncomfortable to hold in a short time.  Like trying to balance a tray of drinks over your shoulder with all the glasses on one side of the tray.  Add a  glass or two to the other side and it becomes much easier to hold.  There's a really good paper on the subject by Larry Kinsella here.  Check out the graphs at the bottom of the page to see the difference in muscle strain that adding a weight to an atlatl makes.

The added stone weight will help balance the system.  I'm holding a relatively short dart in this photo, but atlatl darts could be much longer and heavier.  Holding this ready position for several minutes while hunting would be much easier if the atlatl and dart were in balance.

Leather finger loops and gut binding
The rest of this particular reproduction is a little more speculative.  The length is of an atlatl is often described as the distance from your elbow to the tip of your finger.  For the shaft I used tamarack and I wanted a relatively simple stick shape, although I did taper it towards the spur and added slight finger notches.  I didn't want it to be too flat or to have a channel, like many southwestern atlatls.  For the finger loops I used an old leather knapping pad that was worn soft.  The function of the loops is to help grip the atlatl and prevent it from flying away when throwing.  I hope the client likes it.  This is one of those reproductions that I'm kicking myself for not making two and keeping one for myself.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. My father-in-law, Bob Kilongak (Qilangaq) used an atlatl to hunt geese into the 70's because they ran out of shotgun shells during the spring hunt on Nelson Island, Alaska. Hem only had one good arm, the other was damaged in child hood. Some men still used them from skiffs to dart seals. The darts are usually four feet long and the seal darts had heavy foreshaft sockets. Usually made from walrus penis bone or walrus ivory or whale bone.Most but not all darts were fletched, but the goose spears were not fletched. I make the Yupik atlatls for fun. The hook end were created in variety of ways

    1. That's very interesting. When thinking about the reasons why atlatls might have survived alongside bows and arrows, I don't know if I've ever seen the observation that a hunter with one injured arm could still use an atlatl, unlike the bow. One more reason to not completely forget the technology. Thank you.

  2. cooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool

  3. Can you tell me who made the atlatl reproduction?


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