The Atlatl: A Great Leap Backward
By Tim Cahill
Okay, it's Mexico, 1520 A.D., and you're a conquistador with Cortez. Across the field of battle there's a bunch of Aztecs - savages, to your way of thinking - guys carrying sticks and wearing feathers. You're all decked out in a nice secure suit of armor and moving up on these clowns, getting into musket range, when whomp - out of the nowhere of a hundred yards away a 6 ft. long gadget that's not quite an arrow and not quite a Spear punctures your armor and drives deep into your chest. These things you discover have barbed obsidian points, the kind you have to push through the body and pull out the other side to remove. This, unfortunately, is an impossible task, since you're sort of pinned into your armor. Some feather guy threw this thing at you using a stick about two feet long. And pretty soon you'll be dead. Well, it's mortifying.
The Aztecs called the system - the throwing stick and dart - an Atlatl. Bernal Diaz, a conquistador who wrote the book The Conquest of New Spain about his experiences, called the Atlatl the most feared of all Aztecs weapons. The darts, he said, easily penetrated armor, and many Spaniards died that way, pierced through the chest like so many metallic insects on a display board.
God does not allow us to dicker significantly with the continuum of space and time, but it would be instructive to listen to a conversation between some pierced conquistador and certain modern archaeologists and anthropologists. In 1940, for instance, a respected researcher named Jim Browne built what he supposed were accurate reproductions of atlatls, then spent six months in intensive practice with his creations. He concluded that the things weren't much use as weapons. At thirty yards, Browne said, he might, on a good day, hit something the size of a buffalo once in ten tries.
The pierced conquistadors, I'm certain, would dispute Browne on this point. So the historical and archaeological question arises: How did these things work so well in the early sixteenth century when modern scientists have proven that they don't work at all?
Enter now Bob Perkins, a twenty-nine-year-old engineering student at Montana State University, and his friend, twenty-three-year-old Paul Leininger, an MSU graduate student. The partners have answered the lingering archaeological riddle, constructed a throwing stick and dart that easily won the men's division of the 1986 World Atlatl Contest and now build and sell a working Atlatl called the Mammoth Hunter.
Not long ago, I acquired a Mammoth Hunter and was impressed. It was a simple matter to fit the notch at the end of the dart into the metallic nubbin at the end of the throwing stick and heave the projectile the length of a football field. After only a few hours of practice, I found I could regularly throw the dart three hundred and fifty feet, about twice what scientists have been able to achieve with other replica atlatls. Unlike Jim Browne, I found I could hit a buffalo sized target ten times out of ten at thirty yards. In their research, Perkins and Leininger have determined that a dart launched from the Mammoth Hunter has more knock down power than an arrow shot from a sixty-pound compound bow.
Recently, I drove to Manhattan, to meet the inspired amateurs whose work will probably revolutionize archaeological thinking about atlatls. The partners' house is small, and to describe it as modest would be to underestimate the case. The place was decked out in college student splendor: Good Will chairs with ripped upholstery, a half bottle of schnapps on a table littered with papers covered over with equations and graphs. The graphs, I noticed, all had to do with wave mechanics, the principles of aerodynamics and certain problems that involved integral calculus has applied to the Atlatl.
Out in the garage, Perkins and Leininger have set up a small factory for the manufacture of atlatls. Montana's Manhattan is such a quiet place that the test range for the devices - a target set against some hay bales piled against the garage - extends thirty yards across the street in front of the house. Four or five times a day, somebody drives down the street and the partners have to break off testing and experimentation.
Even so, the Mammoth Hunter is the first replica Atlatl that works the way history describes the originals as working. After a close scrutiny of Bernal Diaz, one gets the idea that these Montana atlatls are as good as the ones the Aztecs used against the Spaniards. So far, the orders for Mammoth Hunter Atlatls have come mostly from professional archaeologist and pre-history buffs, people who understand the nature of BPS Engineering's great leap backward.
"These things are like Frisbees for historians," said Leininger, a slender young man wearing hiking boots. "We've sold about seventy-five of them."
"Keeps us in beer money," put in Perkins, a burly fellow with the sort of easygoing manner yuppie types abhor. I had the sense that the executive officers of BPS enjoyed a party now and again and that beer money was one of their necessities of life. Indeed, I was to learn that BPS stands for "The Bob and Paul Show," a reference to the partners theatrically extravagant party behavior.
I asked how a pair engineering students had decided to expand their talents to an ancient technology. Perkins told me that he'd always been fascinated by archaeology and that in 1984 he took a course in "replicative studies" from an MSU anthropology professor named Tom Roll. "We were supposed to write a paper and complete a project - you know, make a pot or something," Perkins said. "So I decided to make an Atlatl because it interested me."
These days, some scientists refer to the weapon as a dart thrower, a spear sling, a hand board or a throwing stick, but the original and still most commonly applied name derives from the Aztecs. The technology of the Atlatl, archaeological evidence suggests, may go back as far as forty thousand years in the Old World. Research indicates that Native Americans used a throwing stick and dart system as much as twelve thousand years ago, or almost from the time we know for certain that there were people in North America. (The bow and arrow came into use in America only about two thousand years ago.) the Atlatl is thought to be one of the first, if not in the first, compound tools ever invented. "A compound tool," Bob Perkins explained, "is one that has two working parts, like a hammer and chisel. And I have to think that something which remained in use for tens of thousands of years had to be an effective hunting tool."
Inspired by Professor Roll's class in replicative studies, Perkins and Leininger set out to reproduce a technology developed forty thousand years ago. "How hard could it be?" Perkins asked himself.
"It was hard," Leininger says.
Because Perkins considered himself "More an engineering student than an archaeology student," he chose "not to read a lot of papers about what someone else had done. I didn't want to poison my perspective. In any case, there hasn't been a lot written about atlatls. They're really brushed over in the texts."
Perkins had seen pictures and schematic drawings of atlatls, but he had no idea how long the throwing stick or the dart should be. What scant information he could find suggested that the system revolve around the throwing stick. "I thought that was all wrong," Perkins told me. "I decided to use one Atlatl and test all kinds of darts. It turned out that the dart was the most important component of the system."
"One of the basic mistakes in modern Atlatl construction," Perkins thought, "happens when you think of the dart as a spear. Spears are rigid; they have no flexibility. Now, if your dart was a rigid thing, you could boil down the mass of it to the size of a large ball bearing and put it on the end of the Atlatl. Given it a good swing, all the way around, and what's going to happen? The ball will just stay there."
Perkins could see that the dart wouldn't launch with good accuracy or thrust if the projectile was rigid. Which meant the dart had to be flexible. "That way," Perkins explained, "when you start your swing, the dart humps up, like a hissing cat. In a mechanically workable system, the dart will flex, and at launch point it's going to recoil and literally jump off the Atlatl. The dart uses its own flexibility to fire itself off the launch platform."
The Perkins-Leininger flexible dart system seemed, from the first, to be capable of greater accuracy than rigid systems. It also answered another question that has deviled researchers over the years.
Ancient atlatls, the throwing sticks, are often found with a stone weight fastened to the back. The weight was a mystery. Some archaeologists thought it might be a kind of counter weight, useful in increasing the thrust of the dart, but others found no explanation for the weight in the realm of physics. Indeed, Calvin Howard, in a 1973 experiment, found that a sixty-four-gram weight tied to the back of a throwing stick increased neither the thrust nor the distance a dart could be thrown. "These results," Howard stated, "correspond with experiments of Hill (1948) and Peets (1960), who reported that no significant benefits were derived from weights."
Consequently, some archaeologists concluded that the weights found on ancient atlatls were ceremonial in nature, that they may have had some religious significance. Perkins wasn't so sure. "I once read this parody of archaeology," he told me. "It was about a time far in the future and people's physiology had changed so that it was no longer necessary for them to use toilets. Anyway, they find this great twentieth-century site, all these houses. In every one of them, there's a little room, and in this little room, there's a white porcelain bowl. The archaeologists can't figure out what the little room is for, and so they conclude that the toilets are religious in nature, little shrines to unknown gods. I think that's one of the great cop-outs of archaeology: If you can't figure out what it's supposed to do, then it must be religious or ceremonial."
Perkins and Leininger assumed from the start that the weight had a functional significance. It took half a year of experimentation before they could prove they were right. "You have to have a really good system before experimentation will yield any results," Leininger said. "The Atlatl has to have some flexibility to it and the dart even more. With an Atlatl and dart that are grossly out of tune, the weight won't do any good. Most of all, you have to have a dart that works properly. It took us six months to reach that stage."
"The weight, we found, defines the launch mode," Perkins explained. He opened up a folder and laid out a shelf of papers full of charts and equations that I supposed proved his point. Simple experiments - throw five darts is far as you can, measure off the distance, move the weight, throw five more darts - indicate that a properly positioned weight will increase maximum range by ten to twenty feet.
"The darts flexibility," Perkins said, "can be expressed in terms of wave mechanics. You actually launch a wave down the dart. It reaches the end and begins to travel back. Meanwhile, the Atlatl, the throwing stick itself, bends back and stores tension. At the point of launch, the waves from the Atlatl and the dart should cancel one another and turn into acceleration. The dart should be stretched out to its full free length as the Atlatl is releasing its stored tension. So there's a timing element between the two components. A weight will bring these waves into phase. You move it up and down the Atlatl shaft to accommodate your own throwing style. And that's what we believe the weight is for: It's a timing device.
In 1985, Perkins and Leininger took their Atlatl system to Saratoga, Wyoming, for the Fifth Annual World's Open Atlatl Contest. At the time, they were using aluminum darts, and the rule is that, in order to qualify for the competition, all Atlatl systems must be fabricated from materials available in the Stone Age. Still, demonstrations of the partners' flexible dart system impressed the legitimate competitors.
"In 1985," Leininger recalled, "there were only two competitors out of about 50 using flexible darts. We drew big crowds every time we threw our darts." Indeed, when Perkins and Leininger went back to Saratoga for the 1986 contest, about thirty of sixty competitors were using flexible darts.
The contest is held on a golf course and is, in fact, arranged a little like a round of golf. There are tee-off points and targets to hit. One target might be a hundred yards away, another forty and another only twelve. The trials test for distance and accuracy. In 1986, Perkins entered using flexible wooden darts. Because of the partners' demonstrations the year before, Perkins was a heavy favorite among the three hundred spectators. He won the men's division with no other competitor even close. "My advantage," Perkins told me, "was that my mechanics were really hot. I was using the best equipment in the world and that's a dead fact. I'm certainly not the best Atlatlist: There were plenty of people there who could have beaten me if they had been using my equipment."
Perkins handed me the Atlatl he'd use to win his trophy. It was made of primitive materials, much as similar weapons must have been made as far back as forty thousand years ago. "What fascinated me," Perkins said, "is that thousands of years ago, someone figured all this out. They didn't have mathematics or a written language, but they understood the concepts of physics and wave mechanics and aerodynamics. The weight on the back proves that. There's no reason for a weight on a rigid system. There's no purpose for the weight other than to get the Atlatl into phase with the dart. And this isn't something that's obvious."
I thought about all the scientific papers I'd read on atlatls in preparation for my talk with Perkins and Leininger. I had scanned a dozen of them spanning some eighty years. None had suggested that Atlatl darts might be flexible. Perkins was right: it wasn't an obvious concept.
"I have a theory," Perkins continued. "I see one guy figuring this thing out, and I see the concept spreading out from him. I call it the paleo-genius theory. I mean, the idea of genius isn't something alien to us: What about Newton, who laid down the foundation of calculus single-handedly? So why couldn't somebody have used intuitive calculus and physics tens of thousands of years ago?"
I turned the Atlatl over in my hands. "The scientist do much care for the paleo-genius theory," Perkins said. "They prefer to think in terms of brute force trial-and-error experimentation."
I looked at the gadget in my hand. As a hunting weapon, the Atlatl fed the human race in its infancy; as a weapon of war, it frightened and slew the Spaniards. The whole thing is nothing more than a couple of sticks of wood, but it's a representation of human genius through the ages, a sublime and curiously inspiring concept that, incidentally, is keeping Bob Perkins and Paul Leininger in beer money.
This article first appeared in Mother Earth News, July 1987, and is reprinted with the permission of Atlatl Bob's friend, Tim Cahill.
Tim Cahill is the Editor at Large for Outside Magazine and the author of six books, the latest of which is Pass The Butterworms. He recently wrote the screenplay for Everest, the award-winning IMAX film. Cahill has expressed an intense gustatory interest in Atlatl Bob's beer fed sheep.