The "Do It Yourself" Atlatl
Independent Project for Students
Art, Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies
The student will:
1. Follow directions to build an atlatl and spear similar to those used
by prehistoric people.
2. Experiment with balance point, flexibility, atlatl weights, and fletching to determine what variables contribute to the "best" atlatl and spear.
About five hours of independent work
River cane or dowel measuring 6 feet long and ½ inch in diameter
Thick piece of rubber or foam rubber
2-foot branch of straight or slightly curving hardwood
Knife for carving wood
Large rock for the atlatl weight
Epoxy or wood glue
Must Know Info:
Clarence H. Webb (1982)
courtesy of LSU Dept. of
Geography and Anthropology
Some students may express an interest is building their own atlatl and spear. These directions are probably best followed at home under the close supervision of adults as they involve the use of hand tools to construct a realistic prehistoric hunting tool.
About 3,500 years ago, the Poverty Point people used a spear thrower called an atlatl. The atlatl started being used thousands of years before Poverty Point was even built. It was still used around A.D. 400 when Louisiana Indians began adopting the bow and arrow.
An atlatl helped the hunter throw his spear because it gave him a "longer" throwing arm and greater throwing speed. Atlatls have been described as shaped like "oversized crochet needles" because they were about two feet long with a hook at the spear end. The back end of the spear fit into the atlatl. Sometimes an atlatl hook was made of deer antler and attached to the wooden atlatl to hold the spear in place. Atlatl weights made from stones were attached to the middle of the atlatl to add more force to the throwing arm. These are also called bannerstones.
The hunter would hold the spear in place with his thumb and pointer finger, while the other fingers maintained a steady hold on the atlatl. The spear was thrown by using an overhand motion similar to casting a rod and reel or serving a tennis ball. At just the right time, the hunter would let go of the spear and send it toward its target. One of the trickiest things about using an atlatl is holding onto the atlatl when you let go of the spear.
Some atlatl enthusiasts are experimenting to find the best kind of spear. They think that the most important characteristics of a good spear are its balance point and flexibility. The effectiveness of the spear may also be influenced by the position of the stone weight, which is called an atlatl weight or bannerstone. Fletching, the feathers at the end of the spear, may also affect its flight. Students are encouraged to experiment to determine what characteristics make the "best" spear. This would be a really fun science fair experiment.
Caution students that they are building a replica of a prehistoric weapon used to kill animals for dinner and that they need to be careful when practicing with the atlatl. They will need lots of open space with no other people or animals near.
1. Students should review atlatl information from the Atlatl Antics experiment. If this experiment was not completed in class, give
students the handout with factual information.
2. Tell students that the hardest part about learning to throw a spear with an atlatl is trying to hold onto the atlatl while releasing
the spear. Beginners usually let go of everything! It just takes practice!
3. Remind students that the atlatl is a hunting weapon. They should remember to use the atlatl carefully and not to aim it at people or animals. Atlatls should only be used in open areas where there are NO other living beings.
4. Just for fun! Students can conduct experiments to determine the effects of moving the atlatl weight to different spots on the atlatl. Students could also remove the weight to see if this affects the distance the spear is thrown. They may also alter the balance point of the spear or add fletching to the spear to see the effects. This would make a great science fair project.
5. Another fun activity would be to hold a Student Atlatl Competition for distance and accuracy. There are national competitions in atlatl throwing that your students may want to research on the Internet.