How did people kill animals before guns and the bow and arrow? One of the oldest weapons in Alberta is called an atlatl or dart thrower. The atlatl increased in popularity around 8000 years ago and was the trusted technology for roughly 300 consecutive generations of hunters. It was replaced by the bow and arrow around 2000 years ago.
What’s an Atlatl?
The atlatl is a carved wooden board, up to 1 m long, with a hook on one end that inserts into a divot at the end of a ‘dart’ shaft (about 1 m in length).
The hunter throws the dart in a motion similar to a baseball pitch. A flick of the wrist at the end of the throw increases the speed and power. Is the use of an atlatl better than just throwing a spear? The world record for a hand-thrown javelin is 104 m while the record for an atlatl thrown-dart is 258 m!
Evidence of Atlatl Use
The most common atlatl-related artifacts are dart heads. Archaeologists measure width of the projectile point ‘neck’ to distinguish dart heads from smaller points used on arrows. Wood rarely preserves but unique finds from dry caves in the U.S., lake bottoms in B.C., and ice patches in N.W.T. and Yukon have been used to reconstruct atlatl components that were likely used in Alberta. Rock art, preserved in places like Writing-on-Stone National Historic Site in southern Alberta, also captures glimpses of atlatl technology.
Why Use Atlatls?
Archaeologists think that the atlatl replaced the spear because of the safety that it offered (people could launch a dart as opposed to running up to animals to spear them), but the small parts of darts held other advantages over the clunky gear of spears. Darts were not only easier to transport but they penetrated hides with greater force, which likely killed animals quicker. In Alberta, darts were used to hunt bison, sheep, elk, deer, antelope, and smaller animals. Each species likely involved a different strategy and context of atlatl use.
Some archaeological sites, like Everblue Springs in Calgary, reveal that atlatl hunting was a group activity. The site was excavated by Lifeways of Canada in advance of a subdivision development and yielded over 80, 000 bison bones that were preserved thanks to water-logged conditions and clay-rich soils.
Archaeologists found dart points lost in the mud and the blood of what must have been a dramatic kill at the edge of a boggy wetland. Roughly 7800 years ago, a party of hunters hurled darts at a chaotic tangle of at least 42 animals (based on the total number of recovered bones). The dart heads are an unusual form and may reflect the earliest transition from spear heads to smaller barbed and notched dart heads.
Heritage Art Series
The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The scene below and the artifact illustrations in this blog are by Amanda Dow, a Calgary based artist and archaeologist. The artwork portrays both the technological details and use of atlatls at the Everblue Springs site in southern Alberta. Archaeologists strive to study not just the material record of the past but all the associated behaviours and knowledge that people relied on to survive. For over 6000 years, Alberta families depended on the successful use of the atlatl hunting system.
Want to learn more? Check out the October issue of Alberta Outdoorsmen for a full article with more information and figures.
Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey), Brian Vivian (Lifeways of Canada), and Colleen Haukaas (Archaeological Survey)
Want to see other images in the Heritage Art Series? Peruse the variety of artwork and associated stories here:
Stay tuned for new releases in the Heritage Art Series!