Atlatl Antics

Subject Areas:
Math, Science, Social Studies

The student will:

Two one-hour class sessions

Materials:Clay disk thrower
Clay disks
Measuring tape
Atlatl Antics handout (one for each group of five)
String or rope measuring 4 feet (one for each group of four)
Overhead transparency of Atlatl Antics simulation

Must Know Info:
a stick used to hold the end of a spear, used to throw spears

or Atlatl Weight
Clarence H. Webb (1982)
courtesy of LSU Dept. of
Geography and Anthropology
Modern hunters still use a tool very much like one used by the Poverty Point people. A hand-held clay disk thrower can be found in the hunting department of many stores during the fall. This modern-day hunting tool is used to throw clay disks into the air for target practice. 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. Stone weights were attached to the middle of the atlatl to add more force to the throwing arm. These are called bannerstones or atlatl weights.

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.


1. Tell students that hunters today are still using a tool that is very much like the one used by the Poverty Point people. Show them the clay disk thrower and ask if any of them have used it for target practice. Read and discuss the first four paragraphs of the Atlatl Antics handout to find out how the clay disk thrower is similar to the atlatl. Discuss when the atlatl was used by ancient peoples, what it looked like, and how the spear was thrown.

2. Divide students into groups of four to complete the atlatl simulation using a string or rope. Make sure the students understand their roles and the directions for the simulation. Each student should have a turn acting as the shoulder, the hand, the atlatl, and the observer.

3. Show students the overhead transparency of the atlatl simulation while reading or paraphrasing the following directions for the atlatl simulation.

Try this to feel the movement of the atlatl for yourself! You will work in a small group of four students to simulate the rotation of the hand and the atlatl around the shoulder joint. When the atlatl is thrown, its motion is in the shape of an arc pivoting around the shoulder joint. You will get to make the same kind of pivoting motion around a group member. One person will pretend to be the hand and observe how fast the spear would travel if the hand threw it. Another group member will pretend to be the atlatl and observe how fast the spear would travel if the atlatl threw it. Decide whether the hand or the atlatl throws the spear faster. Group members may take turns simulating the hand, atlatl, and shoulder. The fourth group member is the observer.

Measure and cut a piece of string or rope which is four feet long. Place a mark in the middle of the string, two feet from both ends. The "shoulder joint" member will kneel down while holding the tip of the string stationary on top of his head. The "hand" person will hold the string securely at the two foot measurement, and the "atlatl" person will hold the end of the string (four feet from the"shoulder joint" person.)

The "atlatl" person must keep the string taut at all times while walking in a circle around the "shoulder joint" person. The "hand" person must keep pace with the "atlatl" person. The observer will stand at the starting point on the circle and note which person is traveling faster. Go around several times to see who is traveling faster! Now trade places and try it again. Could you feel the difference?

This demonstrates how throwing with an atlatl increases the speed of the dart as it is thrown. A dart which is thrown from an atlatl the length of your arm would travel approximately twice as fast as a dart thrown by the hand. For an even more vivid simulation, increase the length of the radius for the atlatl to about six feet. The larger the radius, the faster the "atlatl" will travel.

4. Form atlatl teams with five students on each team. Students will follow the instructions on the handout to compete in Atlatl Antics. Each student will throw two clay disks by hand. Teammates will measure the distance thrown and all students will record the data. Next each student will throw two clay disks using the clay disk thrower, again measuring and recording data.

Students will compute the averages of each of the two kinds of throws.

5. Each student will create a horizontal bar graph to plot the team's results. A handout of the graph is on page 53. Each group will share its results and conclusions about the advantages of having a longer throwing arm. A whole class graph could be created by combining all of the group graphs on the bulletin board.