The atlatl (pronounced ät-lät-ŭl or more authentically with two syllables ['a.tɬatɬ]), or "spear thrower", is a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in spear-throwing, and includes a bearing surface which allows the user to temporarily store elastic energy during the throw. It consists of a shaft with a hook, in which the butt of the spear rests. It is held near the end farthest from the cup, and the spear is thrown by the action of the upper arm and wrist. A well-made atlatl can readily achieve ranges of greater than 100 meters.

Some later improvements on the original design included thong loops to fit the fingers as well as the use of flexible atlatls and thinner, highly flexible darts for added power and range. These darts more closely resembled four to six foot arrows than spears.

Another important improvement to the atlatl's design was the introduction of a small weight (between 60 and 80 grams) strapped to its midsection. This weight added mass to the shaft of the device, causing resistance to acceleration when swung, which resulted in a more forceful and accurate launch of the dart. Some atlatl weights, commonly called "Banner Stones," were shaped wide and flat, a rather ingenious improvement to the design that created a silencing effect when swung, lowering the frequency of the telltale "zip" of an atlatl in use to a more subtle "woof" sound that did not travel as far and was less likely to alert prey or other humans.


Wooden darts were known at least since the Middle Palaeolithic (Schöningen, Torralba, Clacton-on-Sea and Kalambo Falls). They could be used up to distances of about 15 m with enough power to hurt or kill an animal. The atlatl is believed to have been in use since the Upper Palaeolithic (late Solutrean, ca. 18,000-16,000 BC). Most stratified European finds come from the Magdalenian (late upper Palaeolithic). In this period, elaborate pieces, often in the form of animals, are common. With a spearthrower, effective distances of up to 70 meters could be reached.

In Europe, the atlatl and dart was replaced by the bow and arrow in the Epi-Palaeolithic. Along with improved ease-of-use, the bow offered the advantage that the bulk of elastic energy is stored in the throwing device, rather than the projectile; arrow shafts can therefore be much smaller, and have looser tolerances for spring constant and weight distribution than atlatl darts. This allowed for more forgiving flint knapping: dart heads designed for a particular spear thrower tend to differ in mass by only a few percent.

The atlatl has been used by early Native Americans as well. It seems to have been introduced during the immigration across the Bering Land Bridge, a wide section of exposed seabed that connected Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. The word atlatl is derived from a Nahuatl (the Aztec language) word for "water thrower," as it was most commonly used for fishing. The Aztecs reinvented the atlatl after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in their lands and they were used extensively during the resulting war. History shows that the Spanish feared the Aztec atlatl above all other weapons. Many unfortunate Spaniards were surprised to find the power of the weapon could easily penetrate Spanish metal armor, with the dart often passing completely through the unlucky target. Inuit and the tribes of the Northwest Coast utilized atlatls in historical times as well. Complete wooden spearthrowers have been found on dry sites in the western USA, and in waterlogged environments in Florida and Washington.

The people of New Guinea and Australian Aborigines used spearthrowers as well. The common name in Australia is given as woomera.

Modern times

In modern times, some people have resurrected the spearthrower for sports, throwing either for distance and/or for accuracy. Some people even use them for hunting. Throws of almost 260 m (850 ft.) have been recorded. There are numerous tournaments, with spears and spearthrowers built with both ancient and with modern materials. Similar devices are available to throw tennis balls for dogs to chase, and in the sport of jai alai.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has given preliminary approval for the legalization of the atlatl for hunting certain animals. Final approval would come in April 2006. Which animals one would be allowed to hunt has yet to be determined; attention is focused on deer. There are some who object, stating that the atlatl is rarely capable of a clean kill, resulting in undue suffering for the sport animal.

The woomera is still used today by some Australian Aborigines for hunting in some remote parts of Australia


  • D. Garrod, Palaeolithic spear throwers. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 21, 1955, 21-35.
  • W. Perkins, "Atlatl Weights, Function and Classification", Bulletin of Primitive Technology, No. 5, 1993.
  • U. Stodiek, Zur Technik der jungpaläolithischen Speerschleuder (Tübingen 1993).
  • W. Hunter, "Reconstructing a Generic Basketaker Atlatl", Bulletin of Primitive Technology, No. 4, 1992.



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