Atlatl and Dart

So you’re hungry, and you want meat, and it’s thirteen thousand years ago in North America. There are no firearms, no guns, no steel knives. How are you going to hunt something to eat? And you want something big enough for everyone in your band to eat – a rabbit won’t do. You want something big, and, therefore strong, and fierce and fearless.

Well, you think you’ve got four options: Spear; javelin; bow and arrow; atlatl and dart. But, you’re wrong, so sorry: The bow and arrow haven’t been invented yet; haven’t come into use in North America yet. So that leaves three options:

You could use a spear. A spear is a handheld thrusting device, made of a wooden shaft, tipped with a very sharp knapped point. Very nice, but of course, you’ve got to get right up next to whatever it is you’re trying to kill, and believe me, right about now, what ever it is you’re trying to kill, is trying to kill you right back.

You could hunt with a javelin. A javelin is similar to a spear, but lighter, and thrown by hand. But these big animals – the mammoths, the mastodons, all have really thick hide, and fur over that. You can wound them, maybe, irritate them, but they’ll just run off, or worse, charge you. You just don’t have the strength, the speed, the leverage to throw a javelin hard enough to really be effective.

Or you could use a dart, flung from an atlatl.

A dart? An atlatl? Huh?

Read on, dear reader, and learn more about the atlatl, and how it changed the world.

The term ‘atlatl’ has come, in recent years to be used in lieu of the former term ‘spear-thrower.” “Atlatl” itself is word from the Nahuatl language (Aztec). But whatever term is used to describe it, the atlatl is an ingenious and effective invention. It’s based on the principle of leverage. In much the same way that a lacrosse player, using his or her stick, can throw a lacrosse ball much faster and farther than by merely using his arm, an atlatl let a hunter hurl a dart much faster, farther and with much more force than by throwing a javelin.

Are you familiar with those plastic molded tennis ball throwers that you use to throw a ball for a dog? That is very similar to an atlatl, in the sense that it lengthens the arc through which the tennis ball travels before it is released. As a result, the ball gains velocity, leaves the thrower at a higher rate of speed than if you just threw it with your puny human arm, and therefore travels much faster and farther.

Same thing with an atlatl.

An atlatl is a wooden shaft, with a hook or notch at one end. The operator (you) holds the other end. The butt of a dart is hooked into the hooked end of the atlatl, and then the operator also holds the shaft of the dart, where it lines up with the handle end of the atlatl. Then the operator, you, cocks his (or her) arm back, and while retaining a firm grasp on the handle of the atlatl, releases the grip on the dart. As the arm moves forward, the momentum of the throw is transferred from the thrower’s arm to the atlatl, down the shaft of the atlatl to the butt end of the dart, and thus, the dart is propelled in a larger arc, than the arm alone could give.



Darts were designed for use with atlatl. They are thinner, and lighter than handheld spears, and they can be long – five to seven feet in length, maybe more. They look like gigantic skinny arrows: A point at one end, and feather fletching at the other. The shaft bends and flexes in flight, and the fletching helps the dart fly true.

And it really works. The atlatl can propel the dart at speeds up to 100 mph.

It’s not intuitive – it takes skill and practice. But when used by a capable operator, it gave hunters a tremendous advantage: The atlatl lets a dart be thrown much faster, much harder, and much farther than a javelin. And, for that matter, a dart thrown from an atlatl is a more effective hunting tool than an arrow in each of three measures: “how hard it hits (kinetic energy), how hard it is to stop (momentum), and how effectively it penetrates (sectional density).”[2] According to one study, Hrdlicka, D. “How Hard Does It Hit? A Revised Study of Atlatl and Dart Ballistics,” The Atlatl, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2002, a dart beats an arrow in each of these three categories. His calculations are beyond the scope of this note, but his conclusions are worth noting:

When an object is in motion, it has kinetic energy. When it strikes something, that energy is transferred. This is the basic force of impact – how hard the weapon strikes the target. . . . Kinetic energy is very dependent on velocity. A bullet, because it is moving so fast, has incredible amounts. A .30-06 has roughly 60 times the kinetic energy of a primitive arrow. And yet Native Americans used those primitive arrows to hunt not only deer, but bison as well. . . [B]oth the light dart and the heavy dart seem weak compared to firearms, but they have more kinetic energy than arrows. . . . . . [T]hey would be sufficient to bring down even the toughest game — assuming it is in the effective range. For an atlatl, the effective range is perhaps 50 yards . . .

While kinetic energy determines how hard an object strikes, it doesn’t determine how far it penetrates. That’s where momentum comes in. . . . Momentum is the tendency of an object in motion to STAY in motion. Anyone who has pushed a car in neutral and then tried to stop it will understand this — the more momentum it has, the more resistance it will take to stop it.. . . Projectiles with a lower momentum, like the arrows, may have trouble penetrating thick hide and can be stopped fairly easily if they hit bone. Projectiles with a lot of momentum, like the spears, will go through hide, flesh, bone, and organs, penetrating until they encounter enough resistance to stop them. More momentum also means the projectile is less likely to be deflected by branches or underbrush, so it can be used in different types of terrain.

In addition, momentum is a factor in “knockdown”. A heavy atlatl dart has enough momentum to knock a 40 pound animal completely off its feet and will definitely affect a larger animal. Objects with less momentum, like the arrows or the .357 magnum, will have a much smaller effect. . . . Darts are much more effective in terms of momentum, even better than the .357 magnum. Mass and velocity are equally important in momentum, and darts have quite a bit of mass. It would take more resistance to stop them, which means they would be more effective at penetrating deeply enough into the target to hit a vital area.

Momentum alone isn’t enough for calculating penetration . . . A Ping-Pong ball thrown at a pop can will bounce off. A BB will go right through. What makes the difference? The sectional density. Even though they may weigh the same, in a BB the weight is much more concentrated. Since it is striking a smaller area on the target, more of the momentum is conserved, and it will penetrate deeper. Other factors being the same, a denser projectile will always penetrate more effectively than a lighter one. . . . Atlatl darts are very effective in terms of sectional density. The weight of the long shaft is concentrated in the small diameter, making them more efficient than either arrows or firearms (even the mighty .30-06). This means that the momentum is conserved better, which means the darts will penetrate better.[3]

Another study noted that a dart thrown properly from an atlatl carries more than four times the kinetic energy of a “modern arrow fired from an efficient modern compound bow” (emphasis added).[4] It is worth noting that the use of the atlatl persisted in many places, even after the invention of the bow and arrow. For example, “in his account of the Desoto expedition to the Southeastern United States in the 16th century Garcilaso de la Vega noted that the spearthrower propelled darts ‘with extreme force, so that it has been known to pass through a man armed with a coat of mail.’”[5]

This power and efficiency helps explain why the atlatl was so successful and so widely used.

The range and power advantage provided by the spearthrower . . . , relative to the thrusting-spear or javelin, could have provided Paleoindian hunters with the ability to successfully penetrate the armor-like hides of mammoths . . . greatly increasing a hunter’s chance for success. Likewise, the device’s portability likely permitted Clovis hunters to avoid alternative big game hunting technologies, such as traps or drives coupled with killing lances, thus maintaining a highly mobile subsistence strategy.[6]

An atlatl and dart offered much more power at a greater distance than could be obtained from a javelin. And, of course, hunting from a distance is a benefit for hunters going after large and potentially dangerous game – mastodons, mammoths – since thrusting a spear at an enraged elephant is very dangerous. Don’t try it at home. Don’t try it anywhere.

It may seem counterintuitive that these long darts, flexing through the air toward the prey would be effective hunting tools, but as one author put it,

For tens of thousands of years, it was the primary hunting weapon on earth. Dart points have been found in mammoth bones, and they have been tested on modern elephant carcasses with impressive results. While it may not be as effective as a rifle, it is certainly effective enough. Just how dead do you need your supper?[7]

In fact, darts thrown by atlatls are so effective that it is interesting to speculate about why that technique was largely supplanted by the use of the bow and arrow. I suspect that it may have something to do with the declining size of prey animals. As mammoths and mastodons and the other giant megafauna became extinct, hunters had to turn to smaller, lighter prey, and it may be that the heavy firepower of an atlatl was no longer necessary.

Atlatls have been widely used around the world, in Europe, the circumpolar regions, southeastern Asia, and North America. Atlatls were in use in Europe over 17,000 years ago, and it was long supposed that atlatls came into North America via the Bering land bridge, described earlier. This would mean that the first people known to have inhabited the Americas, the Clovis people, would have been using atlatls.

But no one could say for sure that that was the case. Although atlatl use has been confirmed in North America going back nine or ten thousand years,[8] there has been no definitive evidence that atlatls were used by the Paleo-Indian culture known at the Clovis People. No one has found an atlatl that old. The atlatls that have been found dated from much more recently, even into the 1400’s, and later.[9] “There is no reason to assume that early migrants to the New World could not have possessed the device, but there is currently no empirical evidence that it was actually used by Paleoindian hunters.”[10]

Recently though, in an ingenious bit of science and research, Dr. Karl Hutchings of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada has done a study which permits the strong inference that atlatls were used in North America during the time of the Clovis people, earlier than any fossil evidence demonstrates.


Dr. Hutchings studied patterns of lithic fractures on stone points. That is, he studied the micro features of fracture patterns on stone points. His (and others’) prior research had demonstrated that certain fracture patterns are produced by the force which causes the fractures, i.e. how fast and hard the stone point hit a target.

Dr. Hutchings studied 668 stone points and fragments associated with Paleo-Indian cultures. These were mostly fluted[11] points made of chert, flint, quartz, obsidian, jasper, and chalcedony. “The points were recovered from sites and localities on the edge of the Southern Great Plains, the Southwest, and Far West of North America.[12]

So Hutchings is looking at these points, and sees fracture patterns consistent with a high velocity impact. High enough that the point (attached to a javelin) could not have been thrown by hand. As the study noted,

Fracture velocity data derived from the damaged surfaces of North American Paleoindian points  demonstrate that at least some Paleoindian points were subject to much higher loading rates than can be achieved without mechanical assistance. Since North American archaeologists would generally agree that there is no supporting evidence for the use of the bow and arrow during the Paleoindian Period, the spearthrower is, therefore, indicated.[13]

This is a significant, and very smart finding. As the paper notes, there is no evidence that bow and arrow technology was available to the Clovis people at that time – some thirteen thousand years ago. And there is no known alternate mechanism which could have propelled these points at high enough velocity to have produced the pattern of fractures Dr. Hutchings found. Couple this with the fact that the atlatl was known to have been used in Europe and Asia thousands of years before the time period in question, and the conclusion seems eminently reasonable: The first Americans, the Clovis people were hunting animals – big animals – with atlatls.





[1] Illustration courtesy of National Park Service and US army, but found at National Geographic News,

[2] Hrdlicka, D. “How Hard Does It Hit? A Revised Study of Atlatl and Dart Ballistics,” The Atlatl, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2002,

[3] Hrdlicka, D. “How Hard Does It Hit? A Revised Study of Atlatl and Dart Ballistics,” The Atlatl, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2002,

[4] Hutchings, W.K., and Bruchert, L.W., “Spearthrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research,” Antiquity 71 (1997): 890 – 97, 894.

[5] Hutchings, W.K., and Bruchert, L.W., “Spearthrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research,” supra, 895.

[6]W. Karl Hutchings, “Finding The Paleoindian Spearthrower: Quantitative Evidence For Mechanically-Assisted Propulsion Of Lithic Armatures During The North American Paleoindian Period.” Journal of Archaeological Science 55 (2015) 34-41; Publ. Elsevier, online, Jan. 3, 2015, p. 35.

[7] Hrdlicka, D. “How Hard Does It Hit? A Revised Study of Atlatl and Dart Ballistics,” The Atlatl, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2002,

[8] “The earliest concrete evidence for the use of the spearthrower in the New World is currently represented by the spearthrower hooks from Warm Mineral Springs, and Marmes Rockshelter. The 9000 to 10,000 year old associated dates suggest that the spearthrower was in use by at least the Early Archaic Sub-Period.” Hutchings, supra, p. 35.

[9] See, for example the map showing the distribution of atlatls found in North America.

[10]“Perhaps more than any other New World culture, the Clovis Paleoindian complex has been popularly defined by a single artifact form; the fluted Clovis point. While there is no doubt that fluted points were used to dispatch late-Pleistocene megafauna . . . the question remains: how were these points used to bring down such large game? [I]t is not known explicitly whether this weapon took the form of a thrust spear, thrown javelin, or mechanically propelled spearthrower dart, since no hafted fluted points have been recovered to date.” Hutchings, “Finding The Paleoindian Spearthrower: Quantitative Evidence For Mechanically-Assisted Propulsion Of Lithic Armatures During The North American Paleoindian Period,” supra, p. 34.

[11] The fluting is diagnostic of Clovis culture, and its successor, Folsom.

[12]Represented sites and localities include Murray Springs, Naco, Dent, Lehner, Lindenmeier, Folsom, Rio Rancho, Blackwater Draw, Sunshine Well, Tonopah Lake, and the Dietz site (interior citations omitted), as well as many lesser known, and unreported sites and localities.” Hutchings, p. 37.

[13]W. Karl Hutchings, “Finding The Paleoindian Spearthrower: Quantitative Evidence For Mechanically-Assisted Propulsion Of Lithic Armatures During The North American Paleoindian Period.” Journal of Archaeological Science 55 (2015) 34-41; Publ. Elsevier, online, Jan. 3, 2015, p. 35.

The Dire Wolf

When I awoke, the dire wolf

Six hundred pounds of sin

Was grinning at my window

All I said was “come on in,”

“Don’t murder me . . .”

– Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia

In recent years, the Dire wolf – or the idea of a “Dire” wolf – has become fairly popular.  It’s not just the Grateful Dead song.  It’s part of popular culture in Game of Thrones.  The dread, cunning, rapacious, vicious, enormous Dire Wolf.

The Dire wolf was North America’s own.  Scientists think that it, unlike the gray wolf, evolved on this continent.  And what a wolf it was.

It was big, weighing up to 175 lbs.[1] And strong –  very strong.  Its jaw was larger than that of modern wolves, and it teeth were bigger, and its bite was stronger.  It was well designed for hunting and killing and then eating large prey.

Its scientific name, canis dirus incorporates the word  – dire.  From the Latin meaning “fearful” or “awful.”  Nice.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like modern wolves it was able to  adapt to all kinds of environments.   Its remains have been found throughout the country, and into South America as well.  It lived in all sorts of habitats – forests, mountains, open grasslands and plains; from sea level to over a mile high. And it was very common. Over 3,600 of them have been pulled from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

The Dire Wolf was carnivorous.  Scientific analysis shows that its diet favored bison and horses, although it ate mammoths, sloths, and other large prey, if it could catch them.  It was heavily built, and while only slightly larger than modern gray wolves, it weighed probably 25% more.  And, as noted above its skull contained adaptations that suited it for hunting large, heavy prey – its skull was broader than that of modern wolves, and had attachments suggesting that the muscles which drove its jaw were exceptionally powerful.

So far, only bones have been found.  We don’t know what its fur looked like, but everyone sort of assumes that it looked like modern wolves.  So how did it compare to modern wolves?


Well, as noted above, its skull was bigger, heavier and stronger – more suited to hunting and grabbing onto large prey animals. But its braincase was smaller.  I’m not sure that intelligence had to do with anything in this context, though.  Both dire wolves and gray were very successful for tens of thousands of years, so while a gray wolf might score higher on an IQ test than a dire wolf, it doesn’t seem to have made any actual practical difference.

Its legs were shorter and stockier than modern wolves, suggesting that it wasn’t as fast, and not as well suited to the long effortless loping that wolves do.  These anatomical differences, combined with the fact that the dire wolf evolved in North America, while the gray wolf evolved in Eurasia, raise questions about how the dire wolf lived.  Modern wolves are pack hunters – Was the dire wolf?  There is no evidence of sexual dimorphism – the females were the same size as the males, so presumably they engaged in the same behaviors.  But was this the active pursuit of, say, a bison?  Or were they more like hyenas, and scavengers, first, and hunters only secondarily?   Skeletal evidence shows several things that shed some light on its behavior.

First many of these animals survived broken bones.  This implies that perhaps the pack brought food to injured members.  And it suggests that there was some level of pack behavior.

This is supported by scarring on some of the skulls consistent with hierarchical behavior –  dominant wolves grabbing and biting the heads and faces of subordinate animals.

Finally, the dearth of wolf puppy bones found at La Brea also supports the idea that these were packs animals.  They probably left the puppies back at the den while the pack was hunting, and then brought food back to the puppies.

But while it is reasonable to suppose that they were pack animals, the size of a typical pack is unknown.  Were they small, family-based packs like coyotes, (to whom they are closely related)?  Or did they run in larger, bigger packs, better suited to hunting and bringing down large prey?

The gray wolf came over, across the Bering Strait land bridge, from Eurasia, approximately three hundred thousand years ago, and found the dire wolf already here.  And they coexisted for hundreds of  thousands of years.  Presumably, then they filled different ecological niches.  The gray wolf was, it is thought, faster, more fleet of foot, and probably able to run for a longer time than the stouter, stockier dire wolf.  The dire wolf, in turn had a skull better equipped for taking large heavy prey.  So, presumably, the gray wolf hunted smaller faster animals – deer, or elk – while the dire wolf was taking horses and bison.  Or, as some believe, perhaps the dire wolves scavenged.  That would have been quite a sight – a Smilodon, having taken down a camel, or horse, looks up, and sees fifteen or twenty wolves coming in, focused, intent, snarling, ready to take the kill.


As with so many other large animals, the Dire wolf went extinct some ten to twelve thousand years ago.  But the gray wolf did not.  This is a real mystery.  Why the one, and not the other?

There are several theories.  One is that the dire wolf was so adapted to large prey that when the megafauna went extinct, it did too, while the gray wolf was more adapted to smaller prey which survived.  Some have speculated that the dire wolf didn’t so much coexist with the gray wolf as compete with it, and the gray wolf finally won.  Another theory is that the dire wolf became extinct in the face of a new competitor – human beings.

But there are problems with each of these theories – over-specialization; competition with gray wolves, pressure from humans.

First, dire wolves were, according to the fossil remains, very common.  And spread throughout the continent.  As were gray wolves.  If it was pressure from humans, then why would dire wolves become extinct and gray wolves survive?

Dietary analysis shows that dire wolves’ diet differed from that of gray wolves – so they weren’t directly competitors.  Although, once the large slow animals were gone, the gray wolf would probably out-competed the dire wolf for hunting the smaller fast prey – deer and elk – that remained.  But – and it’s a real question – the bison remained.   So why didn’t the dire wolf continue as it had, hunting the buffalo, and thriving?

I think it is reasonable to posit this theory:  The dire wolves were primarily scavengers, although certainly capable of hunting when necessary.  Remember that this was all completely wild country.  In historic times mountain men and other early explorers of the west reported that hundreds and hundreds of buffalo would be killed trying to cross a river (much as still happens in some part of Africa, today, with wildebeest).  So, at times, at least, there would have been ample food for the wolves to scavenge: hundreds of horses, or some mammoths, say, killed trying to cross a river.  And if they roamed in large packs, they were formidable, certainly able to drive a pack of lions from a kill (again, analogous to hyena-lion interactions in Africa, today).

But they were, therefore, specialists.  Not generalists, like the gray wolf.  The gray wolf will hunt and eat deer and elk, but also – mice.  Anything it can get.  And perhaps, notwithstanding what I wrote up above, maybe intelligence does play a role, here; letting the gray wolf see and understand and seize new possibilities, that the dire wolf didn’t.  Then, when whatever happened to wipe out so many of the large prey animals, the dire wolf was ill-suited to adapt.

The answer is elusive and, as yet, unknown.  Each species in an ecosystem is filling a niche so sensitively, and the entire system is so finely tuned, that any little change may throw it out of balance.  In the case of the dire wolf, it may be that there was no single overwhelming explanation for their extinction, but a combination of small factors, which, taken together, pushed it out of its niche, and into extinction.  So, the horse, which has made up a substantial part of its diet, goes extinct.  The pressure on the dire wolves goes up.  Human hunters replace lions and Smilodon, and unlike them, can’t be driven from the kill – and the pressure goes up.  And the humans make more efficient use of the animals they’ve hunted, leaving less for the wolves to scavenge.  And the pressure rises.  Not so much a single extinction event, perhaps, but something more akin to the death of a thousand cuts.

But even though the actual wolf is gone, the DIRE WOLF lives on in song and story.  And for now, that will have to do.

Useful links:

Craniofacial morphology and feeding behavior in Canis dirus, the extinct Pleistocene dire wolf, W. Anyonge, A. Baker,;jsessionid=69EBE865899AA29760D72BCFF14A3E3E.f02t02 (only the abstract is available online).;jsessionid=69EBE865899AA29760D72BCFF14A3E3E.f02t02 (only the abstract is available online).

[1] Not six hundred pounds.  Not even close.  Sorry, Jerry.  Sorry, Deadheads.