With a bit of research, some pocket change, and a few minutes, you can build an atlatl to connect with generations of long ago.
For whatever reason, I’ve always been one of those folks drawn to secrets of the past. Be it cowboys, mountain men, knights, or Stone Age hunters, they’ve always grabbed my attention. I never was the kid playing cars or trucks, but rather the kid who was playing out in the woods. As I’ve aged, this tendency has only gotten worse. Not only did I major in history while in college, but after that I got involved in primitive archery. Big mistake. Primitive archery opened up a world I’d always been intrigued with. Trapping, bushcraft, primitive skills, and old stuff in general, soon followed and have since have taken up more and more of my time. I’ve become a historical junkie. I guess they say the first step is admitting you have a problem.
One perk of my job as a history teacher is to actually have some working time allowed for research and historical experimentation. I actually teach a class completely devoted to hand’s on historical projects. It was this class that led me into a recent project that really took on a mind of its own. The last week of the first semester, the kids and I took the time to build an atlatl.
I first got interested in the project after stumbling across a good resource on building cheap atlatls. It seemed like a nice way to round out the semester, so I asked the students if they wanted to give it a try. They jumped on the opportunity. I mean, if you were 17 and your teacher asked if you wanted to build an atlatl, is there any other answer other than “yes”? So, with the last few days of the semester to burn, we got started on the project.
History of the Atlatl
Now, to me, a project like this simply isn’t complete without building the actual historical knowledge on the subject. We spent time not only learning how to build an atlatl, but in the information surrounding it as well. In most of the videos we watched, and the websites we read, sources pointed to the birth of the atlatl to be around 40,000 years ago. I think it’s worth mentioning a bit about carbon dating at this point.
I’ve always felt dating this era of human history is a little like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. You’re completely blindfolded, get spun around and delirious, and then some friend kind of halfway points you in the right direction. When you’re only slightly balanced you take a swing. Maybe you hit, maybe you whiff. Odds are though you swung in the general vicinity. To the best of my knowledge, this is a good analogy of carbon dating.
Is the date of 40,000 years ago accurate? We’ll really never know. The truth is though, that whether its 40,000 years, 20,000 years, or 100,000 years old, the atlatl is one of our oldest weapons. To use the atlatl, in a sense, is a very human activity. It is so human in fact, that the atlatl was used by people in every geographic region of the Paleo world. It’s part of the entire human story, not just one culture.
In fact many Native Americans were still using this efficient hunting tool when Europeans first arrived to North America. It is also reported the Aztec reached for the atlatls in their conflict with the Conquistadors due to the fact the weapon had the penetrating power to punch through steel armor. Even today there are a few people who forge onward using the atlatl as their main hunting weapon. One popular figure is Matt Graham, the TV personality on several survival TV shows. You can watch Matt discuss a few of the basics of throwing an atlatl below.
Build an Atlatl
Learning to build an atlatl is extremely simple. The atlatl can be as complex and perfect, or basic and imperfect, as you’d like. The first thing you need to do is find the atlatl material you’d like to use. This can be some dimensional lumber you want to shape, or a branch of the right shape cut from a tree. It should be around the length of your arm and have some sort of spur to hold the dart. For my own personal atlatl I used a survey stake (.89 cents) and a nail (.01 cent) for the atlatl. After hammering the nail I just bent it over, and voila; an atlatl!
Next came the dart. Rather than go searching for the perfect specimen of willow or other flexible wood, I purchased wooden dowels from our local hardware store ($1.00). I started with a dart made of 1/4″ dowel, but find 1/2″‘s works much better. Even better, by using a piece of 1/2 PVC as a coupling, I can connect two dowels together to get a longer projectile with more mass. To complete the dart I simply used a bit of Duct tape to make my fletchings (I don’t know how much 6 inches of Duct tape cost, but you can probably find the money in the couch cushions). With a little effort I carved a cup on the backside of the dart. Satisfied it would accept the spur, I was in business.
The atlatl represents a true breakthrough in human engineering. It is actually a beautiful weapon with as much romance and allure as the bow and arrow. Although it seems like a project a caveman could do, it likely actually took some pretty intelligent cavemen to create. Like the bow, the atlatl not only combined the problem solving of the human brain to develop, but also highlights our ability to judge distance and use hand-eye coordination. In fact, after just a few throws you will likely begin to develop some dexterity with this primitive weapon. In just a few days my students and I were throwing our makeshift projectiles over half a football field.
If you happen to be a historical junkie as well, I would encourage you to take the time and build an atlatl. Not only are they cheap, easy, and fast to build, but they are probably the most used projectile in human history. Right now I just throw for fun in the backyard. My young daughter and my wife throw occasionally as well. It’s fun to watch them pick up these basic weapons and start having fun immediately. This is something almost anyone in the family can enjoy. If you’ve got $5 and 15 minutes, you can build an atlatl and be on your way to living the past.
If this story about primitive technology, you may enjoy the article on 19th Century Fire Staring with a Twist.