The Atlatl

The dart is on the way to its target. Continuing our theme of how the local Native Americans hunted, we thought a discussion of the atlatl is necessary. The atlatl is a wooden handle about 24 inches long.  At the tip end is a hook, point, or pin.  It is used to cast or throw darts with great accuracy and tremendous force.   The darts are about 5 or 6 feet long and are flexible and look like oversized arrows.  The back end of the dart is hollowed out a bit so that it will fit over the pin on the atlatl.   This helps hold it in place but the dart is also held onto the atlatl with the thumb and first finger of the hand that is holding it in preparation for the cast.  The atlatl has been used for at least 20,000 years and predates the bow and arrow.  Compared to the atlatl, the bow and arrow is a very new development.  The atlatl was used all over the world.

The atlatl was used for more than 20,000 years because it provided greater penetrating power than a hand held spear. It had a velocity 15 times greater, could reach four times the distance and hit with an impact 200 times greater than a spear thrown by hand. Additionally, it proved multi-functional and could be used to make fire, grind pigments, as a musical instrument and often as a memory aid.

Upclose illustration of a hand holding an atlatl. Illustration by Neal Anderson

By the early A.D.’s, the bow and arrow had almost completely replaced the atlatl. The bow and arrow allowed for greater velocity, ease and swiftness of movement, a shorter launch time, ease of mastery, and proved more accurate. Next time you stop by Frontier Homestead, ask to take a crack at the atlatl on our range and see if you have what it takes to not go hungry.

Next Time: Artist Clayton Rippey


Young hunters practicing their technique.