The development of the spearthrower

Author(s): William S Webb

Year: 1981


J. Whittaker: [reprint of 1957] Reviews world atlatl types: most forms rigid, they increase length of arm.

Paleolithic "weighted" forms (large carving with hook) are as inflexible as straight "unweighted" ones, so no advantage.

Atlatl's importance in Archaic explains why is treated ceremonially in burials, but weights are not "bannerstones". “Enormous” numbers of fakes made 1890-1930 and on.

Changes from 4000-1500 BC led to greater efficiency.

Archaic and Basketmaker atlatls are "elastic devices for transferring momentum to projectile".

Atlatl physics compared to pendulum or bat and ball - weight brings "center of percussion" (mass for most effective transfer of energy) as close to hook as possible. [Webb seems to consider length or flex of spear irrelevant. No mention anywhere of him experimenting with actual atlatls, and the weight as he reconstructs it at end of atlatl near hook is very inefficient – his center of percussion idea makes no sense – an atlatl is not a club, and more weight on the end does not transfer force to the dart. He feels a rigid atlatl works only by lengthening the lever arm, but a flexible one is better –allows “transfer of momentum” an idea that leads him to put the weight at the end, when really the atlatl increases velocity, which is different. ]

Associations in Archaic graves indicate atlatl shaft some 25", with hook and handle >30", weights indicate flexible atlatl.

Antler handles flare for good grip necessary as transfers force to spear.

Earliest shell midden levels have only bone points, assume all-wood atlatl.

Basketmaker atlatl weight 56 grams near middle, loops for grip.

Archaic: Bar weights earliest, most through time, often in graves with no other atlatl parts (= wooden atlatl). Four examples L = 9-13 cm, Wt = 65-87 gm.

Later add antler hook, several types and attachments, some too long for efficiency - remove hook too far from center of percussion.

Then drilled prismatic weights to go with short antler hook. Temporal order: straight sided, constricted centers, expanded centers, shell section weights, butterfly winged forms.

Indian Knoll area center of development, site dates C14 5300+300 B.P.

Later hooks - short conical antler segments with spur on rim, also "geniculate" weights, and prismoidal weight with hook cut in stone - all to get weight + center of percussion as close to hook as possible [My own experiment with Indian Knoll type atlatl with stone weight convinced me that weight near hook was not good - it made motion far too slow. But others, like Richard Lyons, like the weight out there.]

Prismoidal weights usually 7-8 cm long, 50-85 grams. [Seems too light for size of weights.]

Depth distributions of atlatl parts to indicate chronology at Indian Knoll and Annis Shell Midden sites [but stratigraphy too crude to trust this info].

Complains that "bannerstone" idea from collectors interested in objects, not knowledge, complains about looting and faking back to 1930s and earlier.

Grave associations, parts drilled similarly and in alignment prove weight theory [but he doesn't illustrate any or compare hole diameters of any sets].

Cite this Record

The development of the spearthrower. William S Webb. University of Kentucky Occasional Papers in Anthropology.: Program for Cultural Resource Assessment, Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky. 1981 ( tDAR id: 423409)

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections


Atlatl Hunting Weapon

Individual & Institutional Roles

Contact(s): EXARC Experimental Archaeology Collection Manager

Record Identifiers

ExArc Id(s): 10221


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