Atlatl and Darts

a spear thrower and slender spears

weapon (ranged)

This is a weapon for ranged combat. The “atlatl” is a spear-thrower about as long as forearm plus hand. It can be made from a wide variety of types of wood. A weight, perhaps of stone, is valuable.

Atlatls are useful at ranges of up to 40m. For hunting, the atlatl can have the same level of accuracy as the bow.

The “dart” is a slender spear that flexes slightly when thrown, unbending as it flies. The launched dart spins, giving the illusion of a wobbly snaking path through the air (it does not actually bend back and forth).

Dart points are usually attached to reusable foreshafts. After the long hindshaft falls away, the animal can not easily remove it. The knapped point may shatter but if it does not, it will be recovered when the animal is butchered. If not too badly damaged, it may be retouched and used again.


Atlatl is a term of Central American origin. It is Nahuatl and is thought to mean “water thrower”. The atlatlists descended from indigenous people in the Americas do indeed use these devices mainly for fishing and catching waterfowl. Some of the most remarkable archaeological finds came from caves (notably Broken Roof and White Dog Caves), so the wood and bindings are intact.

In Australia the spear thrower is called a Woomerra. It is not just a weapon, it’s also a handy plate or bowl for holding food during preparation. One tool with many uses is the paleo way. Oddly, its width adds useful weight and does not impede the speed or strength of the throw a great deal, but it does silence the sound of the cast.

Mysteriously, the only continent with no conclusive record of atlatl use is Africa. Circumstantial evidence (information that’s inconclusive because alternate explanations are still possible) include ritual staves whose shapes hint they were derived from atlatls. Archaeological remains fron 25,000 years ago in northwest Africa hint that this may be the birthplace of this weapon system. The answers yet await discovery.

There are several styles, hinting at different technological “lineages”. Some use a cup-like end that cradles the dart. Some use a peg that sits in a socket on the dart. Some appear to have a vertical projection that sits in a notch on the dart, not unlike the way a bowstring rests at the back of an arrow.

The process of making an atlatl in the Basketmaker tradition involves tying the ends together to impart a bend. Perhaps the American invention of the bow and arrow came from this memetic pathway.

In the real world, the bow and arrow mostly displaced the atlatl and dart as the weapon of choice, probably around 6000 BCE. The atlatl was not entirely lost, however. When the Conquistadors from Spain arrived, they were terrified of the Aztec atlatlists, whose darts pierced their steel breastplates. Atlatls are still in use in Mexico, Peru, the Northwest American coast, and places in eastern Canada.

In the hands of a typical modern person, the more powerful bow outdistances the atlatl. The modern world record for long distance currently stands at 258.6 m (848 ft).

Given that atlatl and dart take far less effort to make than the bow and arrow, it is to be wondered why one replaced the other. One factor may be the speed with which the skill is acquired. An archer can be qualified to make humane kills after less than a year. According to the records of the World Atlatl Association, that kind of proficiency with an atlatl takes three years.

Atlatl and Darts