US and Arizona Flags, Kayenta, Arizona
Most of what we know about prehistoric North American atlatls comes from the many well-preserved examples found by Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey in the early twentieth century in Basketmaker II rockshelters near Kayenta, Arizona. We know much more about atlatl use in Mesoamerica, where the atlatl was still widely used in the contact era, from descriptions by the early Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, and one account of the De Soto expedition indicates that the atlatl was still used as a weapon in the lower Mississippi valley in the sixteenth century as well. Elsewhere in North America, however, the bow and arrow had apparently completely replaced the atlatl long before European contact (which in many areas was quite late), so only archaeological evidence shows that it was ever used at all. In most regions conditions were not good for preservation of perishable materials like wood, so atlatls themselves very rarely survive except in the dry Southwest. Many Southwestern atlatls, however, had attachments made of more durable materials, and similar artifacts found in other regions indicate that atlatl use was quite widespread throughout the continent.
US Highway 160, Kayenta, Arizona
The best known and most mysterious of these attachments are the so-called “atlatl weights” found securely tied or strapped to many Southwestern atlatls. These are typically small pieces of stone, rounded or rectangular in shape, secured to the underside of the atlatl between the finger loops and the groove where the dart was placed. Once they were identified as atlatl attachments from the intact Basketmaker specimens, similar artifacts in many other areas (such as the northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest) were grouped with them as well. Since they are made of stone rather than wood, they preserve much better than the atlatls they were presumably attached to, so assuming the identification of their function is correct they constitute a reliable indicator of the distribution of weighted atlatls throughout North America.
Parking Lot at Hampton Inn, Kayenta, Arizona
The question of what these things actually were remains, however. They are conventionally described as “weights,” and it’s certainly true that they weigh down the atlatl, but beyond that it is not at all clear why they were attached. It’s important to note in this context that weights are not found on atlatls elsewhere; Mesoamerican examples, in particular, never have them, and are typically made of solid pieces of wood. Since the atlatl was very important in Mesoamerica, it is interesting that the Mesoamericans never seemed to think it worthwhile to add weights. This suggests that the weights on North American examples are either connected to some functional or design difference between types of atlatl or non-utilitarian. Some of the attachments on some of the Basketmaker examples seem likely to have been charms, but others are more substantial and look more like they were added for a functional reason. The exact nature of that reason remains elusive, however, and not for lack of attention from researchers.
Power Lines and Trailers, Kayenta, Arizona
One early experimental study aimed at determining the function of the weights was done by Orville H. Peets and published in 1960. Using a replica of a well-preserved weighted atlatl found in a rockshelter in West Texas, Peets found that the weight made no significant difference to either the distance the dart traveled or the force with which it did so. This is in contrast to the assumption by many earlier researchers that the additional weight improved force and/or distance. Peets concluded that the purpose of the weights was instead to keep the atlatl and dart in balance on the hand while throwing, and he noted that Mesoamerican atlatls, which do not have weights, are typically heavier and would stay in balance more easily than the thin Southwestern examples. Calvin Howard’s later experiments, which I mentioned earlier, didn’t focus primarily on the issue of weights, but they did support Peets’s conclusion that the weights did not improve the distance or force of the throw. Indeed, Howard found that adding the weight decreased the distance substantially.
"No Water Hauling" Sign, Kayenta, Arizona
A later article by John Palter took issue with Peets’s conclusion that the weights served to balance the atlatl by pointing out that in Australia, where the atlatl was widely used well into the era of European contact, very large darts were thrown easily with no attempt to bring the atlatl/dart system into balance on the hand, which suggests that balance actually doesn’t matter. Palter further argued that the fact that Southwestern atlatls, unlike Mesoamerican ones, were typically thin and flexible may indicate that flexibility was an important consideration in their design, and that the weights may have served to amplify this flexibility. He doesn’t give much support for this other than pointing out the use of flexible (but unweighted) atlatls from Australia, and he does acknowledge that at least some of the items attached to Basketmaker atlatls were likely charms with no practical function.
Horse Trailers, Kayenta, Arizona
Yet another article on the issue of atlatl weights was published by Anan Raymond in 1986. Using high-speed photography to carefully document the actual motions involved in throwing the atlatl, Raymond concluded that Howard’s description of how it works was correct and that the spur of the atlatl, where it contacts the nock of the dart, essentially moves in a straight line forward during the throw. He also notes that much of the inconsistency in previous experimenters’ conclusions about the function of weights is likely due to differences in the design of the atlatls they used, most of which were made of modern materials and not necessarily comparable to archaeological examples. (He mentions Peets as an exception.) His own experiments were done with replicas of Basketmaker atlatls and darts using materials as close as possible to the originals. He found that the weights did improve both speed and distance, but by a very small amount that may not have been statistically significant. He did notice in the high-speed photography that the atlatl did flex during the throw, and he speculated that, as Palter predicted, the addition of a weight might enhance the flexing, but the film speed was too slow to give enough frames of the flexing to see any difference between weighted and unweighted atlatls.
Kayenta Presbyterian Church, Kayenta, Arizona
Since his experiments showed that any improvement in speed or distance from the addition of a weight were likely negligible in practice, Raymond took a different tack in trying to explain the function of the weights. He argued that the addition of weights increased the inertia of the throwing system, which made throwing more difficult but also increased angular momentum, which kept the throwing arc more stable and thus improved the accuracy of the throw. This is an interesting and plausible explanation, and I think it makes more sense than any of the other theories offered by earlier researchers. After all, in either hunting or war accuracy is a very important consideration, and a substantial increase in accuracy could easily be worth a small decrease in distance or force. (Raymond also did some interesting comparative experiments to look at the differences between atlatls and bows, which I’ll discuss further in another post.)
Water Tower, Kayenta, Arizona
Even if Raymond was right that it was accuracy rather than force or distance that made weighted atlatls advantageous, there are still some puzzles remaining about the weights. Most importantly, if they were in fact so useful, why didn’t they spread further? They do seem to have been used over most of North America, but in Mesoamerica and further south people seem to have achieved more or less the same thing by just making heavier (and less flexible) atlatls. The differences in types of atlatls used in different geographic areas, and the persistence of atlatl use even after the introduction of the bow and arrow to some, but not all, areas, suggests that a wide variety of cultural factors were involved in choices about weaponry. Given that, there’s a limit to how much information can be obtained from looking at these issues from a purely technological perspective, as valuable as that perspective undoubtedly is.
Bushnell, D. I. Jr. (1905). Two Ancient Mexican Atlatls American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 218-221 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00040
Butler, B., & Osborne, D. (1959). Archaeological Evidence for the Use of Atlatl Weights in the Northwest American Antiquity, 25 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277441
Fenenga, F., & Wheat, J. (1940). An Atlatl from the Baylor Rock Shelter, Culberson County, Texas American Antiquity, 5 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275282
Howard, C. (1974). The Atlatl: Function and Performance American Antiquity, 39 (1) DOI: 10.2307/279223
Neuman, R. (1967). Atlatl Weights from Certain Sites on the Northern and Central Great Plains American Antiquity, 32 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278777
Palter, J. (1976). A New Approach to the Significance of the “Weighted” Spear Thrower American Antiquity, 41 (4) DOI: 10.2307/279019
Peets, O. (1960). Experiments in the Use of Atlatl Weights American Antiquity, 26 (1) DOI: 10.2307/277169
Swanton, J. (1938). Historic Use of the Spear-Thrower in Southeastern North America American Antiquity, 3 (4) DOI: 10.2307/27562
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