Intact atlatls are rarely found, but when they are it’s usually in the Southwest or the Great Basin, arid regions with good preservation conditions for perishable materials like wood and leather. Some, but not all, of the examples that have been found in these areas have pieces of leather attached as apparent finger loops to secure the atlatl during use. Since these would be highly perishable even under relatively good conditions for preservation, some have suggested that many of the surviving atlatls that don’t have them now would have originally had them, but this is not universally accepted and there is no real way to tell for sure. In many other regions there is no evidence of atlatls ever having had finger loops, and they certainly wouldn’t have been necessary in any absolute sense for effective use of the device.
There is evidence that the use of finger loops was somewhat more widespread, however. Just how widespread they were was discovered by Gordon Ekholm of the American Museum of Natural History, and the interesting story of how he figured it out is documented in an article he wrote that was published in American Antiquity in 1962. Ekholm had done some excavation in northeastern Mexico and found there some enigmatic artifacts, generally made of shell and crescent- or U-shaped, with drilled holes at the ends. These had been found by archaeologists in other parts of Mexico as well, especially in the west and northwest, and while no one was quite sure what they were most researchers had considered them ornaments, perhaps used for personal adornment on the nose or, since they often occurred in pairs, on the ears.
Then, in the summer of 1960, Ekholm was visiting the British Museum and saw on display there a very elaborate atlatl from Mexico with two crescent-shaped shell finger loops elaborately tied to it with cotton thread. When he saw it he immediately realized that the mysterious shell crescents must have been finger loops for similar atlatls. He got in touch with the museum’s curator of ethnography, who examined the atlatl more closely and gave Ekholm more information on it. It turned out that only one of the loops was original, the other being a replacement, but the binding for the original one was apparently original as well. Inspired by this discovery, Ekholm sought out information on other atlatls in European museums that had such finger loops. He found only one, at the Pigorini Museum in Rome. The director of the museum provided him with photographs of the atlatl and confirmed that, contrary to published information, the loops were made of shell rather than bone. Both loops on this example were apparently original, as was the binding.
Once he had confirmed that the examples in London and Rome were similar to the artifacts he knew from Mexico, Ekholm looked through the collections of the American Museum and the Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian), as well as in the published literature, for examples of the artifacts to test his hypothesis. He found that they generally fit it very well, although a few seemed a bit small to be finger loops. These, however, could be explained by the fact that the bindings on the European specimens were rather loose, leaving a bit more space between the inside of the loop and the wood of the atlatl than would be apparent from just looking at the loop itself. The only example he found that was notched in a way suggesting it was attached directly to the atlatl was an unusual specimen from Sonora made of green stone, and he suggested that the atlatl itself may have been carved to narrow it a bit where the loops were attached. Geographically, the examples Ekholm could find were mainly from the western part of Mexico, although there were also some from the northeast and from central Mexico, including some examples from Teotihuacan. The only examples from the Maya area were unusual in size or shape and may have been some other sort of artifact that only superficially resembled these finger loops. In general, this type of atlatl seems to have been primarily associated with the north and west of Mexico. A subsequent paper by Ann Johnson of the University of Kansas added two more examples from Sonora which resembled Ekholm’s unusual notched example and suggested that this might indicate a specific regional tradition on the far northern fringe of Mesoamerica. She notes in this connection the leather finger loops on Southwestern examples, which tend to have a narrowing in the atlatl itself where the loops were attached, just as Ekholm had suggested for his Sonoran loop. Johnson also suggested that another enigmatic artifact type, the small so-called “cruciform” artifact made of stone and shaped like a cross or a four-pointed star, might be an atlatl attachment, since these were typically found in rows associated with male burials. To support this idea she relied mainly on evidence from the Aztec codices suggesting that some atlatls were decorated with star symbols, which seems rather weak evidence to me, but the idea is at least plausible.
Ekholm noted at the end of his paper that the importance of these finger loops extended far beyond identifying a mysterious artifact type. Since most Mesoamerican atlatls were apparently made entirely of perishable materials, and since most of Mesoamerica is not conducive to preservation of such materials, finding evidence of atlatl use in Mesoamerica is very difficult and tends to rely mostly on artistic and textual sources, which can be difficult to interpret. With the discovery of these durable loops, however, Mesoamerican archaeologists gained a marker of atlatl use similar to the weights and hooks found in various parts of North America. Clearly these loops were only used on a particular type of atlatl, probably one of many in use in Mesoamerica, but having a reliable marker for one type is better than having nothing, which is what Mesoamerican archaeologists had before. The possible connections between the leather finger loops of the Southwest and these shell and stone loops, most common in the area in between the Southwest and the Mesoamerican heartland, would be interesting to look at, although I’m sure it’s a complicated issue and there may not be any straightforward answers. This little chapter in the story of atlatl research is interesting in and of itself, however, and it shows the importance of serendipity in making connections between things that have been lying in plain sight without their importance being recognized.
Ekholm, G. (1962). U-Shaped “Ornaments” Identified as Finger-Loops from Atlatls American Antiquity, 28 (2) DOI: 10.2307/278375
Johnson, A. (1971). Finger-Loops and Cruciform Objects American Antiquity, 36 (2) DOI: 10.2307/278671