by Robert Connolly
A highlight for visitors to the C.H. Nash Museum is the opportunity to use a prehistoric tool called an atlatl. This Wikipedia page contains a wealth of information about this tool. The word atlatl comes from the Nahuatl language that was spoken by the Aztecs in central Mexico in the 1400s. Atlatls were a primary hunting tool in the Southeast U.S. prior to the introduction of the bow and arrow less than 1500 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence for the atlatl goes back at least 20,000 years to France. Atlatls are found at prehistoric archaeological sites throughout the world. Here is a good link to photos and plans of how to make different styles of atlatls from throughout the world.
So how does an atlatl work? Basically think of the tool as an extension of your arm when throwing a spear or dart in hunting. With the extension, you get extra leverage and can throw the dart further and harder. Think of the way a catapult works – the longer the lever, the farther the throw.
The atlatl consists of a handle on one end and a hook or spur on the other end. The two ends are connected by a shaft. A spear or dart is thrown with the atlatl. The end of the spear or dart is placed on the atlatl’s hook with the dart tip pointing forward. The shaft of the dart is held between the thrower’s thumb and index finger. You then simply throw the dart similar to how you would throw a baseball or javelin. Sound tricky? It’s not as hard as you might think once you get the hang of it, though a high level of skill is needed for distance and accuracy. Here is a video link that shows the basics of throwing with an atlatl.
Atlatls are becoming increasingly popular today. In fact, there is a World Atlatl Association that hold competitions, has lists of individuals who make and sell atlatls, and lots of links for further information about the tools.
At Chucalissa we use atlatls made by Chris Henry of PaleoArts.
Young and old alike throw darts with atlatls at the C.H. Nash Museum. Ask to try your hand at this activity the next time you visit the museum. One of the planned events for our National Archaeology Day celebration at Chucalissa on October 20th will be an atlatl throwing contest. Check future issues of our e-newsletter Chucalissa Anoachi for more information on the upcoming National Archaeology Day events.
Robert Connolly is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis