An atlatl is a throwing stick. It’s a tool used to extend the reach and flexibility of a hunter’s arm so that he or she can throw a light spear farther, harder, and faster. And very accurately. The word atlatl comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, who used atlatls in hunting and war.
|A model at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, shows an ancient|
hunter using a simple atlatl and dart. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.
|Atlatl throwing. Illustration by Drew Shannon for |
Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past (Kids Can Press, 2018)
I first heard about atlatls in the late 1990s, when I lived in the Yukon. A friend, Environment Canada caribou biologist Don Russell, was asked to confirm discovery of what appeared to be huge quantities of caribou droppings melting out of a high alpine ice patch near Whitehorse. (For the full story, see my book Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past.)
|Dimples in the ends of atlatl darts.|
Illustration by Drew Shannon for
Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is
Revealing the Past (Kids Can Press, 2018)
“Cool,” said the archaeologists (more or less), when presented with the stick. “Part of an arrow, maybe even a century old. Very rare.” But testing showed it was even cooler. The stick was 4300 years old, and it wasn’t an arrow. The tell-tale dimple at one end showed that it was the remains of an atlatl dart. Long ago, around the time that ancient Britons were building Stonehenge, a hunter in the Yukon mountains flung a dart at a caribou – and missed. The dart disappeared into the snow and ice where the cold preserved it.
That was the first direct evidence of atlatl use in the Yukon. Wood normally disintegrates in a few years unless it’s preserved in some way – usually by extreme dryness or extreme cold. Cold is what saved the Yukon atlatl dart, and it has preserved other things too. Lots more wooden artifacts, including the rest of the dart Don found, have been discovered in the ice patches, as well as bone, antler, leather, and other materials that normally don’t survive for thousands of years.
|Kids choose their weapons at the atlatl range at the |
Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.
Yukon Government photo.
|Ready to throw at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre's atlatl target range.|
Yukon Government photo
If you'd like to see video of people throwing atlatls, here is the 2012 Atlatl Competition at Anasazi State Park Museum in the United States.
And, of course, you can always consult my own book -- Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past (Kids Can Press, 2018) -- for the story of the Yukon discoveries and frozen discoveries elsewhere in the world.