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The Atlatl and Dart

Author(s): Richard Vanderhoek

Year: 1998

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J. Whittaker: [A very good study, well written, the most thorough work in English. He covers the available literature in detail, and also relies on his own experiments and experience of Madden, Strischek, and Chauvaux.]

Begins with ethnographic information on Arctic and Australian atlatls with good references, distribution of types, reports of use. Chapter 4 is History of Experimentation, good summaries. Chapter 5: The Motion. Differences are between short range accuracy throw and longer throw for distance.

Short throw with light dart needs just arm and shoulder, cites Raymond film showing dart + atlatl tip move in straight line throwing at 20 m target, with slight raise of atlatl tip as atlatl handle rotated downward. Atlatl moves 90 degrees to the ground [he means straight over].

Heavy dart, longer distance needs torso rotation + weight shift, resembles baseball throw, atlatl moves 45-60 degrees [meaning sidearm motion as shown in his ethnographic photo]. Notes some Eskimo underhand/sidearm throw to skim water for birds (Nelson 1899). [But it’s still a bad way to throw.] Dart moves in straight line (Stanford 1979 photos), except Engvall’s distance throw with sidenock dart.

Overhand throw reduces side to side dispersion of dart, while crossbody throw tends to disperse upper R to lower L . Sidearm darts strike in horizontal line across target [optimistically!].

Describes accuracy throw: atlatl and dart held horizontal at shoulder height, hand behind body, feet 30 degrees to target, L foot advanced. Atlatl drawn back, then propelled by torso rotation and weight shift to leading foot. Enough weight shift to forward leg to lower body slightly, allowing atlatl to rotate forward but maintain flat trajectory with spur end. [This is actually very bad form, and his major practical and theoretical flaw – a full overhead motion of the atlatl is much more effective, and not just for distance.] Start smooth, end with wrist snap.

Three handle styles: stick (Aust, N. Guinea, N. + S. Am., Up. Pal. Euro.) , central hole (Arctic, N. Pacific, Carribean, Amazon), double hole (N. Am., MesoAm.) – affect wrist. Stick uses hammer grip, dart held by thumb + index or middle finger. Central hole is for index finger, thumb and opposing fingers around grip also hold dart. Two holes for index and middle finger – as some Basketmaker style. New Guinea and S. American also developed side piece to help hold dart by thumb pressure.

Chapter 6: The Atlatl. Longer atlatl lengthens throwing lever of hand and forearm for more energy to spear. Optimal relation of atlatl length to spear length is around 1:3. Rotation of the atlatl moves the dart base out of line of the dart’s trajectory, and amplitude of oscillation should match time taken by atlatl rotation. So longer atlatl requires more dart flex. [I don’t think the oscillation timing is important here, but greater length aids flex, so longer atlatl will be best with longer dart.]

Atlatl weights. Other theories cited, then flex of atlatl and tuning to dart flex. Actually it most likely dampens sideways movement of atlatl shaft for increase smoothness and accuracy of throw. [Right] Atlatl flex is not important – ethnographic and experiments show. [Right again]

Chapter 7: The Dart Many variables affect performance: material, length, diameter, weight, taper, center of balance, center of pressure, mass distribution, locations of greatest stiffness and flex, spine weight, point weight and length, foreshaft, fletching type and location. Dart more critical than atlatl. Flex: spine should match thrust. [In summarizing experiments, he seems to accept idea that flexing dart acts as spring to increase dart velocity, which is wrong, but here he correctly discusses flex for accuracy.] Compare to bow: string pushes arrow toward center of bow, must flex around bow – archer’s paradox. Dart bent by atlatl rotation, in same plane as atlatl, spine should curve up or down in same plane too. Longer darts may be more accurate. Easier to aim, easier judgment of spine. Arrow balance point usually 25-35% from tip, Australian spears more often 40-48% (Cundy 1989). Center of pressure [not well defined] should be behind center of gravity. Fletching moves c of p back, but not all darts need fletching. Spine is important but hard to measure, and wide range appears to work. Location of flex is important – tail should flex more than tip. Modern parallel sided same-diameter shafts have poor center of gravity and bend uniformly along length. Tapered shaft is better. But oscillations can be simple or complex with two different nodes, which is why a spliced dart of two same diameter segments still works – splice isolates tail flex. Front third of dart should be stiff – if it oscillates, not accurate.

Chapter 8: Accuracy, Power, Speed. Accuracy is better practical measure of effectiveness than range. Cites ethnographic accounts ranging from 20 to 60 yards. WAA ISAC developed 1996.

Distance records. Ethnographic accounts and modern experiments variable, from 40-130 m. Wayne Brian record 1993 modern gear 210.31 m, 1994 primitive gear 177.17 m. David Engvall 1995 258.64m with “Off-Axis-Forward-Nock spear. Arrow flights: Ishi 183 m, British longbow practice at 200 m.

Penetration – affected by point as well as force of throw and weight of dart. Lists some experiments.

Speed: probably aim and throw almost as fast as bow and arrow. [I doubt it, much more complex motion] Velocity: cites various dart records.

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Cite this Record

The Atlatl and Dart. Richard Vanderhoek. . University of Illinois , Urbana-Champaign. 1998 ( tDAR id: 423408)


Individual & Institutional Roles

Contact(s): EXARC Experimental Archaeology Collection Manager

Record Identifiers

ExArc Id(s): 10220


Rights & Attribution: The information in this record was originally compiled by Dr. Roeland Paardekooper, EXARC Director.

Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America