Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The atlatl, or "throwing stick" is a weapon that uses leverage to achieve greater speed in spear-throwing, and includes a bearing surface which allows the user to temporarily store elastic energy during the throw. It consists of a shaft with a hook, in which the butt of the spear rests. It is held near the far end from the cup, and the spear is thrown by action of upper arm and wrist. Some later improvements on the original design included loops of thong to fit the fingers as well as the usage of flexable atlatl's and thinner, highly flexable darts resembling more closely 4 to 6 foot arrows than spears for added power and range. Another important improvement to the atlatl's design was the introduction of a small weight (between 60 and 80 grams) strapped to its midsection. This weight added mass to the shaft of the device, causing resistance to acceleration when swung, thus resulting in a more forceful and accurate launch of the dart. Some atlatl weights, commonly called "Banner Stones" were shaped wide and flat, resulting in a rather ingenious improvement to the design that created a silencing effect when swung, lowering the frequency of the telltale "zip" of an atlatl in use to a more subtle "woof" sound that wouldnt travel as far and alert prey or other humans to its use in their proximity.
Wooden darts were known at least since the Middle Palaeolithic (Schöningen, Torralba , Clacton-on-Sea and Kalambo Falls). They could be used up to distances of about 15 m with enough power to hurt or kill an animal. The atlatl is believed to have been in use since the Upper Palaeolithic (late Solutrean, ca. 18,000-16,000 BC). Most stratified European finds come from the Magdalenian (late upper Palaeolithic). In this period, elaborate pieces, often in the form of animals, are common. With a spearthrower, effective distances of up to 30 m could be reached.
In Europe, the atlatl and dart was replaced by the bow and arrow in the Epi-Palaeolithic. Along with improved ease-of-use, the bow offered the advantage that the bulk of elastic energy is stored in the throwing device, rather than the projectile; arrow shafts can therefore be much smaller, and have looser tolerances for spring constant and weight distribution than atlatl darts. This allowed for more forgiving flint knapping: dart heads designed for a particular spear thrower tend to differ in mass by only a few percent.
The atlatl has been used by early Native Americans as well. It seems to have been introduced during the immigration across the Bering Land Bridge, a wide section of exposed seabed that connected Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. The word atlatl is derived from a Nahuatl (the Aztec language) word for "water thrower" as it was most commonly used for fishing. The Aztecs reinvented the atlatl after the arrival of the spanish conquistadores in their lands and were used extensively during the resulting war. History shows that the spanish feared the Aztec atlatl above all other weapons and many an unfortunate spaniard was surprised to find the power of weapon could easily penatrate spanish metal armor, with the dart often passing completely through the unlucky target. Inuit and the tribes of the Northwest Coast utilized them in historical times as well. Complete wooden spearthrowers have been found on dry sites in the western USA, and in waterlogged environments in Florida and Washington State.
In modern times, some people have resurrected the spearthrower for sports, throwing either for distance and/or for accuracy. Some people even use them for hunting. Throws of almost 260 m (850 ft.)  have been recorded. There are numerous tournaments, with spears and spearthrowers built with both ancient and with modern materials.
- A good picture depicting use of the atlatl
- New Scientist story "Stone Age Kalashnikov"
- The history of the spearthrower in the New World
- D. Garrod, Palaeolithic spear throwers. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 21, 1955, 21-35.
- U. Stodiek, Zur Technik der jungpaläolithischen Speerschleuder (Tübingen 1993).
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