All About Atlatl
August 18, 2020 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Learn about the Atlatl (pronounced aht-laht (kinda)), a 30k-year-old handle used to throw a giant arrow. Listen to Angelo Robledo discuss Experimental Archeology on Ologies. Then watch Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's new movie "The Silencing." Excited? Make your own, and bring it to an Atlatl event. You can even recreate the ancient game/ceremony of Moche Toss (3 pages).
posted by rebent (27 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
A fun tongue twister for everybody: my ocelotl asks an axolotl for an atlatl.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 2:06 PM on August 18 [5 favorites]

Thirteenth warrior had an atlatl scene too.

I feel like this weapon is on every nerds top ten favorite list. I knew my brother-in-law was a fellow geek when his first reaction to a ChuckIt! was to call it an atlatl.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:08 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]

If you decide to hunt or fish with your atlatl, be sure to check your state's atlatl hunting and fishing laws. My favorite response is from Georgia:
The spearing of fish, other than game species and all catfish species, is legal in Georgia waters; "....provided the person engaged in the act of spearing is completely submerged." Therefore, the use of an atlatl is legal for some fish species provided that you are submerged. Thanks for contacting [Wildlife Resources Division] with your question.
posted by jedicus at 2:23 PM on August 18

So when I was still homeschooling my daughter, we attended a home school co-op. One of the classes I created dealt with different historical cultures and the way their warriors fit into the overall society. For the Aztec, the project was atlatls and it was my favorite (tied with giving the kids cardboard Roman shields and having them form a "testudo" while I chucked bunches of bamboo skewers at them in lieu of arrows).

Anyway, if you're like me and are lazy (or you have to make a dozen of them quickly for some 10 year olds), the Utah Division of State History put out a tutorial on making a cheap and rudimentary one with a dowel, an extra long paint stirrer, some wood glue and not much else.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 2:49 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]

Ah, cool. Growing up, atlatls were (among many other things) something my father made quite a lot of, and would occasionally do presentations with the local museum on their construction and history.

This is a very specific thing I have firsthand experience with that I never expected to see a FPP on, so it's awesome to see this post. Thanks, rebent!
posted by Lonnrot at 3:06 PM on August 18 [4 favorites]

Anyone remember Primitive Technology on YouTube? Just some dude in the bush, wordlessly making stone age stuff?
Five nature-sounds minutes of crafting an atlatl.

posted by bartleby at 3:07 PM on August 18

Coming from the archaeology side since small times, I'm a little bemused at the trailer working hard to make an atlatl scary. Which, granted, it would be if somebody chased you with it--they could be deadly--but they're so, so old. It's like a detective intoning, "This is called a Clovis point."
posted by Countess Elena at 3:15 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

The Modern Rogue YouTube channel has done a couple of videos with atlatls:
How Much Farther Does an Atlatl Throw?
How Powerful is an Atlatl?
posted by Lexica at 3:21 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the post rebent!

I've wondered if the dropping of the last "l" was a modern Nahuatl convention.

Also, I've never liked the translation for tlacochcalcatl "Lord of the House of Darts". "Darts" sounds so diminutive. "Bolts" would be better. "Lord of the House of (Atlatl) Bolts".
posted by ishmael at 3:23 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

In high school in Michigan, a friend told me about his cousin on the other side of the state hunted boar with an atlatl. Given how dangerous boar hunting can be, and the not great effective range, I was suitably impressed. Of course, the conversation probably came out of some sort of D&D discussion, because I can’t imagine another reason for two Michigan teens to be talking about atlatls.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:26 PM on August 18

A fun tongue twister for everybody: my ocelotl asks an axolotl for an atlatl.

Surely it should be: “My ocelot’ll ask an axolotl for an atlatl in Nahuatl.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:06 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]

There is a YouTube channel Hunt Primitive that has a couple videos of hunting boar with an atlatl (CW: Hunting, killing, processing of animals). There is one from a few years ago and another from three days ago.

The line in the trailer about it not being a toy is quite true. But fun, it can be fun.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 7:46 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

used to throw a giant arrow

We just say "spear."

off to the Wikipedia to see if there's some technical difference
posted by aspersioncast at 8:01 PM on August 18

A spear is for thrusting, a javeline is for throwing, and an arrow is a javelin that has fetching! I learned that from the podcast
posted by rebent at 8:08 PM on August 18

posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:21 PM on August 18

We just say "spear."

Split the difference and call it a dart. Blame the British if you think a dart is smaller than a dirk =)

Jarts/ Lawn darts got the idea about right , but they need to be a wee bit longer. I suspect they were shortened and lightened to improve safety.

Atlatls - how do you pronounce the multiple?

Ah, ChuckIt!s. Love those things. There is a lot of flex to the handle of those, which when used right can add a lot more energy to the missile.

qv modern super "flexy" carbon fiber composite hockey sticks that impart a lot more spring energy into the puck. Modern professional hockey players flex their sticks a lot more than even in my youth when composites (laminates) started coming into play, which were already much more advanced than the baseball-bat-like old school hockey sticks.

A dowel and a paint can stirrer doesn't really convey the extra advantage of using a thrower all that well. In highschool as a short 80 lb kid, I could throw a javelin more accurately and with more force from trial and error than by following "correct form." If I was taller and the javelins were scaled to my height and proportions - I would have been able to throw more accurately and with more force from "correct form" than what I found worked for my dimensions with an oversized javelin.

But wow AlonzoMosleyFBI, very creative hands-on learning! The testudo demo is super duper cool. HBO's 'Vikings' first season has a bunch of rather well done battle scenes that directly inform how the game of rugby came to be and explored the nature and nuance of small numbers shield wall melee combat.

I wonder how flexy the original atlatls were, which might be hard to determine from archeological evidence (was there a preference for green wood, or wood with similar grain characteristics as that used from ash trees for English longbows)?
posted by porpoise at 9:17 PM on August 18

And wouldn't a "spear" be a tepoztopilli? Translations are always ambiguous. Don't quote me on this, I vaguely remember an old-timey historian call an aztec weapon an "assegai".
posted by ishmael at 9:18 PM on August 18

A spear is for thrusting, a javeline is for throwing, and an arrow is a javelin that has fetching! I learned that from the podcast
posted by rebent at 11:08 PM on August 18
[+] [!]

posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:21 PM on August 18
[+] [!]

Rebent, stop trying to make fetching happen.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:32 PM on August 18 [7 favorites]

We say woomera
posted by Thella at 11:08 PM on August 18 [4 favorites]

We say woomera
So cool! It seems like such a specific tool to me. I wonder if they are related at all, or they developed completely independent of each other. I suppose there are other similar cultural artifacts that occur to different cultures- can't really think of any off the top of my head. Maybe fermenting? Food utensils? Cups? Han chinese cups are a weird variant though.
posted by ishmael at 7:42 AM on August 19

Five nature-sounds minutes of crafting an atlatl.

That dude puts narration in his CC. Apparently he has some kinda tv show coming out eventually.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:07 AM on August 19

Back when I was younger and more mobile than I currently am, I liked to go to knap-ins. There were often atlatl throws at those events.

I have have an atlatl or two and some darts hanging sadly unused in my garage.

I was also briefly a member of the World Atlatl association. I don't see it now, but at least for a while their motto was "Too long have I hunted mammoth alone" or something like that.

(Note: I was never really good with an atlatl, but having something that boosted my naturally puny throwing arm was nice to play with.)
posted by Archer25 at 10:25 AM on August 19

Wouldn't it be especially challenging to use an atlatl while completely submerged?
posted by thedward at 7:28 PM on August 19

One memorable evening I enjoyed wild boar that was killed with an atlatl by Bob Berg of Thunderbird Atlatls and butchered using obsidian knives. The meat was cooked over an open fire. It was wild and smoky tasting.

Using an atlatl is surprisingly gratifying and makes one feel superhuman. Easy to see why they were game-changers for early humans.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:09 PM on August 19

We say woomera
So cool! It seems like such a specific tool to me. I wonder if they are related at all, or they developed completely independent of each other

The woomera* can double as a coolomon* (multi-purpose carrying tool). Anything sized right, including babies, can be carried in one.

Are they related? It's hard to tell. But if they are they likely originated from Australia and spread northwards from there rather than the other way around. The remains of Mungo Man (40k+ years old) had wear in his joints that equaled the wear that would come from repeated use of a woomera.

*Woomera is a Dharug word from around what we now call Sydney. Prior to colonisation, there would have been hundreds of words meaning a similar thing from our 250+ languages.
*Coolomon is a anglicisation of another Aboriginal word whose origins have been lost to time.

So many artefacts from Australia were looted by the colonial invaders. It's possible that there are woomeras in some collections that are thousands of years old, assuming the timber survived that long.
posted by Thella at 12:04 AM on August 20

The Greenlandic version of the atlatl is the Norsaq, or throwing board. It's a trapezoidal board about the size of your forearm, usually with finger notches carved into the sides, and a hole, into which a pin on the harpoon fits. The hunter leans back in the kayak with the harpoon resting on the norsaq, and uses the core muscles to lunge forward and launch the harpoon. Today, the norsaq is used primarily in Greenland kayak rolling, where the paddler doesn't use a paddle to roll the kayak back up, but only the norsaq.
posted by jimfl at 7:18 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]

Just learmed there's no pluralization of inanimate nouns in classical Nahuatl. So we could use atlatl for the multiple form in English. Atlatls sounds wrong to my ear.

I wondered what modern Nahuan languages do, and it looks like some interesting animacy rules for plurals too.

Anyways, atlatl are cool and I want to make one now! Thanks for the post! Makes me want to pull together a post about macuahuitl and chīmalli.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:05 PM on August 20

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