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Slinging Spears

Recent Evidence on Flexible Shaft Spear Throwers

John Palter

More than 20 years ago, I proposed that the category of artifacts in North America collectively known as spear thrower adjuncts, bannerstones, or atlatl weights, were intended to be used to exploit the potential of a flexible shaft weapon (1976, J. Palter, A New Approach to the Significance of the "Weighted" Spear Thrower. American Antiquity 41: 500-510). This conclusion was based on archaeological and ethnological evidence. The principal archaeological evidence was the fact that stone weights had been found in close association with well-preserved, thin, flat, flexible, Basket Maker II spear throwers in the American Southwest (1919, A. V. Kidder and S. J. Guernsey, Archaeological Explorations in Northeastern Arizona. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 65). The ethnological evidence came from two sources: the examination of two remarkably flexible spear throwers from the Australian collection at the British Museum of Mankind, and the discovery of a manuscript from the ship's journal of Her Majesty's Schooner Bramble, recorded by John Sweatman while on a surveying expedition along the north Australian coast in the late 1840s. Sweatman observed that the natives in and around the region of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula employed two different types of "throwing sticks," each reserved for different activities. For the purpose of hurling long and relatively heavy war spears, flat, broad, rigid shaft spear throwers were used. For the purpose of hunting birds and other small animals, however, he observed that the type of throwing stick employed was "longer, broader, and very springy, the natives being able to crack it like a whip"(J. Sweatman, 1848, Journal of a surveying voyage to the northeast coast of Australia and Torres' Straits, in Her Majesty's Schooner Bramble, Lt. C. B. Yule, Commander, 1842-1847, Mitchell Library, MS. A1725. Cambridge).

I concluded, on the basis of this evidence, that flexible shaft spear throwers may have been in general use throughout the distributional range of artifacts described as atlatl weights or bannerstones. The purpose of these artifacts was to enhance the performance of flexible shaft construction. I recommended that further experimentation would be necessary to confirm the potential of attaching weights to the shaft of these weapons.

Recent evidence has come to my attention that appears to shed new light on this subject. There are numerous national and international atlatl associations that promote the exchange of information on the sale and construction of modern versions of the atlatl, as well as schedule distance and accuracy competitions. There is even an international standard for judging these competitions. I recently contacted one competitor, Ray Strischek, a member of the Ohio Atlatl Association, and the World Atlatl Association International Standard Accuracy Competition champion in 1997. He had some interesting comments regarding the use of flexible shaft atlatls.

First of all, he stated that although he started out competing with rigid atlatls, he later switched to the manufacture of a flexible shaft design.

I started out with rigid atlatls. During the casting motion, as the atlatl is levered forward and when the atlatl is more or less vertical, I noticed that my wrist would start hurting from the strain, and, since this is the point in the casting motion when pulling the atlatl changes to pushing the atlatl, I noticed my forward motion slowed or hesitated somewhat, and the spur would start to wobble back and forth a little.

Out of curiosity, I made a flexible atlatl, and, noticed that the moment of the most flex in the atlatl shaft also happened at the moment when the atlatl shaft was vertical. In my opinion, the flexing of the atlatl acts as a shock absorber. Certainly the strain on my wrist was reduced and I no longer felt that hesitation when the atlatl shaft was vertical. I was able to just plow on through the casting motion.

I noticed that there is a slight increase in distance achieved with a flexible atlatl versus the rigid atlatl, but the increase is only slight and in my opinion the increase comes from not losing momentum during that transition from pulling to pushing.

In my opinion, the flexing atlatl acts as a shock absorber allowing for a smooth, non stop momentum building cast, and the atlatl weight keeps the flexing dart from causing a wobble at the spur end of the atlatl. Both assets increase control, which allows for consistency, which in turn improves accuracy.

(R. Strischek, 1998, personal communication)

Strischek also noted the recent popularity of the flexible, weighted atlatl in national and international competition.

The survey I did last year (1997) was of 40 atlatlists from the United States and Europe. The Americans preferred 24 to 26" flexible/weighted atlatls while the Europeans favored 30 to 38" rigid/un-weighted atlatls.

He also noted that an equipment survey of 18 atlatl competitors scoring 60 or above on an International Standard Accuracy Competition in 1998, "16 atlatls were flexible, two atlatls were rigid." Of the 16 flexible atlatls, 14 had weights attached along the shaft.

Although recent competition does not prove that flexible shaft, weighted spear throwers were in general use among the aboriginal populations of North America, the emerging preference for such a weapon by modern-day competitors does lend support for such a conclusion. It does appear that there are advantages for such a design. Certainly, as in any sport, superior equipment is a powerful incentive for arriving at the optimum specifications for construction. It will be interesting to see if European atlatl enthusiasts will adopt a flexible/weighted shaft design to remain competitive with the Americans.

John Palter has an M.A. in anthropology from SUNY-Albany, and is currently a computer systems engineer in Novato, California.

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