In November of 1793 a British naval expedition commanded by Captain George Vancouver arrived at the small Spanish settlement of Santa Barbara on the coast of California. Vancouver’s primary mission was to explore and map the poorly understood northwest coast of North America, building on the more preliminary information provided earlier by Captain James Cook. He was quite successful at this, and the detailed maps produced by his expedition greatly enhanced British understanding of this area, which was becoming very important geopolitically as a result of its potential resources and increasing competition among Britain, Spain, and Russia to claim it. When he arrived at Santa Barbara he was headed south, having spent the spring and summer exploring the area around the island that now bears his name and bound for Hawaii to spend the winter. He anchored off of Santa Barbara for eight days to rest and resupply, and his men took advantage of the opportunity to trade with the local Spanish and Chumash inhabitants. Mission Santa Barbara was only a few years old, having been established in 1786, and the presidio where Spanish soldiers were garrisoned was only four years older than that. Although the Chumash had been in contact with the Spanish since the Cabrillo expedition of 1542, the permanent Spanish presence in their territory dated only to the establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772, and at the time Vancouver’s expedition stopped by they were only just beginning to move to the missions and experience the profound and complicated cultural changes that would result.
George Goodman Hewett, Surgeon’s First Mate on Vancouver’s flagship, HMS Discovery, was among the members of the expedition who did some trading with the locals at Santa Barbara. Hewett apparently had a strong interest in the customs and lifestyles of the various peoples the expedition encountered, and he collected from them various items of material culture whenever possible. Over the course of the four years that the expedition ended up taking he acquired a substantial collection. While the greatest number of items in the collection were from the places the expedition spent the most time, particularly Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, the items from Santa Barbara were (and are) of particular interest to later anthropologists, since Hewett collected them at a time when traditional Chumash culture, now known primarily from the very detailed but nevertheless retrospective ethnographic fieldwork of John Peabody Harrington in the early twentieth century, was still mostly intact and only beginning to be affected by missionization and Spanish contact. Hewett’s collection remained in his family until 1891, when it was acquired by the British Museum, where it remains. A description of some of the most significant items was published by Charles H. Read in 1892.
Read’s description included two atlatls. One is an elaborately carved example from southeast Alaska, where use of the atlatl is known to have persisted into modern times, perhaps because of its usefulness in fishing and maritime hunting compared to the bow. The other is from Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara atlatl, as it has been known ever since Read’s publication, is very odd for a number of reasons. For one thing, just at the outset, the idea of the atlatl being used at Santa Barbara in the late eighteenth century is odd. California is one area where the replacement of the atlatl by the bow and arrow, whenever it happened, is widely agreed to have been complete by long before then. While atlatl hooks have been found in early archaeological contexts in various parts of the state, including the Chumash area, there is no evidence of atlatl use from later prehistoric contexts, and the copious ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on the Chumash nowhere mentions the atlatl, whereas the importance of the bow and arrow is discussed many times. Read was not in a position to know any of this, of course, since this understanding of the culture history of the area came long after his time.
Furthermore, the form of the atlatl itself is odd. While archaeological and ethnographic examples from North America, including the Alaskan ones from the Hewett collection, are typically long and thin, the Santa Barbara specimen is short and thick. While most atlatls are about half a meter long, this one is only 15 cm long, and nearly as wide. Furthermore, while North American examples typically have either attached leather finger loops or none at all, this one has two large holes carved out of the wood itself. The wood seems to be a local type, and no one has questioned the authenticity of the specimen or Hewett’s account of its origin (Read notes that Hewett’s record-keeping was pretty good by the standards of his time), but it’s all very odd and hard to explain. If it represents a survival from a local atlatl tradition, this tradition is suspiciously absent entirely from both the archaeological and ethnographic records. While it’s true that atlatls, being made of wood, rarely survive archaeologically, this one does have a bone hook, so if it represents a survival of an ancient atlatl type that continued in use after the adoption of the bow and arrow it would be reasonable to expect at least one similar bone hook to survive somewhere, and this still doesn’t address the lack of ethnographic evidence.
Nevertheless, the Santa Barbara was generally accepted as an unusual but indigenous type of atlatl until 1938, when the prominent California archaeologist Robert Heizer published an article looking at the issue and coming to a quite different conclusion. Heizer pointed out the lack of any other evidence for this type of atlatl as well as all the oddities of the Santa Barbara specimen compared to other examples, and went a step further by noting that it bore a striking similarity to the atlatls still in active use at that time by the Tarascans of western Mexico (remember them?). These also have paired finger-holes carved out of the wood, and have the same widening of the body of the atlatl around the holes. The dimensions are still different; the Tarascan examples are much longer and thinner than the Santa Barbara one. There is still a remarkable similarity, however, and Heizer goes on to point out that the Spanish were known to use Tarascans and other Indians from previously colonized parts of Mexico as settlers on the frontier, particularly in the northwest, which is where the expeditions that colonized California in the 1770s are known to have started. Although there is no direct evidence that the Spanish soldiers and missionaries in California were accompanied by Mexican Indians, given typical Spanish practices it would not be a surprise. This, combined with the striking similarities between the Santa Barbara atlatl and Tarascan ones, leads Heizer to propose that the Santa Barbara example is not a survival at all, but a reintroduction of the atlatl to the area from Mesoamerica, where it remained in use long after the Spanish conquest. The Santa Barbara one is clearly of local manufacture, however, which suggests that this process did not simply involve Tarascans bringing their own atlatls to California, although that was presumably part of it. Rather, once the Mexican Indians were there, they apparently showed the Chumash the use of the atlatl, which they used for fishing and hunting in maritime settings, and the Chumash (who were a coastal people very oriented toward the sea) were sufficiently impressed to copy it themselves. Since it apparently did not become established securely enough to be noticed or mentioned by either the Spanish or later ethnographers, the Chumash don’t seem to have ultimately decided to adopt it as a core part of their culture or subsistence system, but they do seem to have at least tried it out. Indeed, Hewett may have encountered the Chumash at a time of experimentation connected to the changes associated with the transition to mission life, and his acquisition of the atlatl may have preserved a moment in time, a tentative embrace of foreign technology that was ultimately rejected and that would therefore otherwise be unknown to history. Along the same lines, it’s worth wondering why the Chumash were willing to part with this obviously unusual and presumably rare item when all the other things they gave Hewett were rather typical and plentiful items such as bows. Was whoever tried to copy the Mexican atlatls, or whoever had tried to use the copy made by someone else, displeased with how the experiment had turned out and eager to get rid of the item when a foreigner interested in buying random things showed up? There’s no real way to tell, of course, and it’s also possible that atlatls like this were used successfully for a while around this time then abandoned for some other reason. This item is, however, an intriguing window into a complicated past, and it shows that it’s important to look carefully at the stories behind artifacts before constructing theories based on their characteristics.
Heizer, R. (1938). An Inquiry into the Status of the Santa Barbara Spear-Thrower American Antiquity, 4 (2) DOI: 10.2307/275985
Read, C. (1892). An Account of a Collection of Ethnographical Specimens Formed During Vancouver’s Voyage in the Pacific Ocean, 1790-1795 The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 21 DOI: 10.2307/2842277