Atlatls or Spear-Throwers - Native American History
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Chinook atlatl, about 500 AD (one foot long)

An atlatl, or spear-thrower, is a wooden or bone stick with a hook on one end that you can use to throw a spear farther than you could throw it without using an atlatl. You put your spear into the hooked end, and then you use the atlatl (aht-LAH-tull) to push the spear. It gives you more leverage so the push is harder and the spear goes farther. A good atlatl will let you throw a spear more than 100 meters (about 100 yards). That's about a block, or the length of a football field. You used them to hunt big animals like deer or buffalo or mammoths.

Once people began using atlatls, they gradually made them better and better. They added leather loops on the end that went over your fingers, they attached stone weights to the middle of the atlatl to make them push harder, and they began to use lighter spears that were really more like darts or arrows (which eventually led to inventing the bow and arrow). People also made small atlatls for kids to learn how to use them.

People began using atlatls in Europe during the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age, around 17,000 BC. They probably came to North America with the people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge about 15,000 BC. Many hunters used atlatls in North America during the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods, and migrating people took them to South America as well.

By about 10,000 BC, people in Europe stopped using the atlatl because they were using the bow and arrow instead. The same thing happened in North America around 1000 BC, at the beginning of the Woodland period. But the Inuit and Chinook people kept on using the atlatl, and in Central America the Aztecs used atlatls to spear fish (the word "atlatl" is an Aztec word meaning "water thrower"). Aztec soldiers also used atlatls in their war against the Spanish invaders in the 1500s AD, because spears thrown using an atlatl could go through Spanish steel armor.

Learn by doing: making an atlatl
More about bows and arrows
More about the Native American economy

Bibliography and further reading about Native American weapons:

Native American economy
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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