As promised, we’re venturing back in time to the very earliest human habitation of the Nashoba Valley to take a look at the technology of the paleoindians 13,000 years ago!
The land which would become Massachusetts looked much different at that time. Most noticeably, there were many fewer Dunkin’ Donuts compared to these days. Furthermore, the last ice age was coming to a close, and the glaciers (some more than 2 miles tall!) had only recently receded from the area. These massive ice sheets left in their wake a vast, wide-open tundra scraped clean of forests, and this landscape lent itself to long-range hunting of big game like moose and caribou, and even megafauna like woolly mammoths!
This was still thousands of years before the bow and arrow appears in New England’s archaeological record. While good old-fashioned spears may have gotten the job done while hunting, paleoindians seem to have held the same feelings we do about getting too up-close and personal with giant animals who can smoosh you, and preferred to keep as much distance as possible. That’s where a piece of technology called the “atlatl” comes in!
You can scroll through this photo gallery to learn all about it, and stay tuned because tomorrow we’ll be coming face-to-face with the wild and woolly mammoths from Tuesday’s teaser trailer on our Facebook page!
A modern example of the same physics behind the atlatl can be seen in those handy thrower-thingies used to hurl tennis balls for dogs! More on this in the next picture! The atlatl is a tool, usually a couple of feet long and traditionally made of wood, bone, or antler. Gripping one end in your hand, you latch a hook from the other end into the concave rear of a projectile called a dart, which sort of looks like a giant arrow, anywhere from 5 to 8 feet long (see next photo!). You hold onto the atlatl as you launch the dart, and it essentially elongates your reach and provides more leverage, allowing you to send the dart with significantly greater force, velocity, and range. In lieu of a ruler, which I could not find, I’ve included an 8 oz. bag of shredded Montery Jack cheese for scale. Later, Anni found a real ruler and we discovered that the dark atlatl is 26 inches in length, but I still contend that cheese is an underutilized form of measurement. I’m holding one of the 8 foot darts, and you can make out the fletching from 5 and 6 foot darts in the background. Longer darts tend to be slower-moving but provide more accuracy, while shorter ones are a bit harder to aim but much more speedy. The various lengths have really different feelings when thrown, so a lot of it comes down to personal preference once you get a sense of each type. Here’s a good shot showing how the atlatl’s barb fits into the concave end of the dart to give you a good hold as you launch them! To illustrate the bonus added to your range with an atlatl, the campers from the Binghamton University Community Archaeology Program tried throwing the darts first by hand and then with the aid of atlatls. They couldn’t believe how far they could get the darts to go once they got the hang of it! As another example, the world record for a hand-thrown javelin, the kind you see in the Olympics, is 323 feet. This is incredibly impressive, but guess what? The world record throw using an atlatl surpasses this more than two and a half times over, coming in at 850 feet! That’s using modern materials like carbon fiber and titanium, but the record atlatl throw even using traditional resources like wood, antler, and bone still shatters the javelin throw at 581 feet, so you can see how this added range would be an attractive prospect in a time period which still included saber-toothed tigers! The name “atlatl” comes from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and means “spear thrower” or maybe “water thrower” owing to its use in fishing. Based on current evidence, their use appears to go back nearly 20,000 years in the hands of cultures all over the world. Atlatls have been found in archaeological sites on every continent except for Antarctica (we’re working on that one, but I bet we’ll find one there too!). This is even more interesting given that many of these groups were not in contact with each other during this era, so the technology was possibly passed down from memory, or even invented independently, and either possibility is wild to think about. The atlatl was still in use by the Aztecs when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in early 1500s. While the stone points were not able to pierce the conquistadores’ steel breastplates, the weapons were nevertheless greatly feared. There is an account something to the effect, in 16 th century Spanish, of “I really, really don’t want to get hit in the face with a spear.” The Aztecs no doubt then corrected the conquistador, letting him know that the correct term is “dart”, this misnomer being a common pet peeve of atlatlists. The bow and arrow came to largely eclipse atlatl usage over time owing to a couple of important factors. One is the size of the ammunition. It’s possible to carry a quiver full of numerous arrows without much trouble, but carrying even a single atlatl dart is always a pain in the butt because it’s so long and unwieldy. Carrying 20 arrows, you can look like Legolas; while carrying 20 atlatl darts though, you’d look like giant porcupine. The atlatl has a bit tougher learning curve as well, so it’s easier to become proficient in archery, and when being proficient has a lot to do with whether or not you eat on a given day, it seems most cultures chose to adopt the bow and arrow over the atlatl, so fair enough. The ancient atlatl tradition is alive and thriving to this day! There are organizations like the World Atlatl Association and competitions held all over the globe, including the Annual Northeastern Atlatl Championship not too far away in Chimney Point, Vermont. Franklin Pierce University has the not-very-attractively named “Hurling Ravens” atlatl team, the University of Vermont’s got a club, and other schools are starting groups too! Franklin Pierce University’s team even earned a bronze medal in the men’s distance category at the Annual Northeastern Atlatl Championship back in the day, not too shabby! The Franklin Pierce University team uses atlatls and darts hand-crafted by the Berg family who own Thunderbird Atlatl in Candor, NY. If you’d like, you can find their website here with a full catalogue of atlatls in styles from all over the world, ranging from the utilitarian to the most ornate you can imagine. They’ve also got fascinating articles and wicked fun videos showing them putting their atlatls head-to-head against steel armor, neat! https://www.thunderbirdatlatl.com/ . If you’re feeling crafty or want to try out some experimental archaeology, you can also fashion your own atlatl. All you need is a stick in the correct sort-of-Y-ish shape and you’re good to go! The Franklin Pierce University Anthropology Club helped teach some Roman legionaries how to use atlatls at the 2010 Archaeological Institute of America Conference in Anaheim, California. And speaking of time travelling, tune in to our Facebook page tomorrow when we’ll be bringing our atlatls along with us as we encounter a mighty herd of woolly mammoths!