Student handout


The "Do It Yourself" Atlatl

Independent Project for Students

Feeling a little prehistoric? Try these directions to build your own Native American atlatl and spear. Remember that this is an ancient weapon which was used to hunt and kill animals for dinner! Be careful when practicing with your atlatl and do not aim or throw in the direction of living beings! Adult supervision is a must.

The atlatl should be carved from a hardwood. Take a hike to find a straight or slightly curving branch of oak, hickory, or pecan which is about two feet long. If you are lucky, you may find a branch that already has a hook on the end or you may be able to trim an off shooting branch to easily make a hook. If not, you will have to carve one on the end. You could glue the tip of a deer antler on for an atlatl hook. The middle of the atlatl needs to be carved away so that it is flat and lower than the handle and the hook. This leaves room for the spear to fit into the hook and for your fingers to hold the spear. You may wrap your handle with leather to make it easier to hold, or you could just leave the bark on the limb. A smooth handle would be slippery.

The Native Americans may have used river cane or willow for their spears because they are abundant and grow straight. River cane looks like bamboo and usually grows near water. It is easy to make river cane into a spear because it is hollow. Just cut a slit on the tip end to hold the stone point. The hole at the tail end of the river cane spear will fit into the atlatl hook. If you can't find river cane, a six foot dowel from the lumber store or a willow branch will do nicely. Some archaeologists suggest that the spear's length should be equal to your height. Find a spear length that is comfortable for you. An adult will need to help you make a hole to fit into the atlatl hook and cut a slit for the stone point.

You may cut a "stone" point from thick rubber or foam rubber. Draw a pattern for your stone point which looks like this one, only larger. Tape the pattern on the rubber and trace around it. With an adult's help, cut the shape out of the rubber. To attach your point, carefully cut a slit across the wood at the end of the spear. Slide the point into the slit and glue it with wood glue or epoxy. Now use dental floss to tie the point securely. Native American peoples used sinew from deer to attach stone points to their atlatl spears. Sinew is the long tough tissue which joins the muscle to the bone. Ask a deer hunter to save you some venison sinew and a deer antler. The tip of the antler may be used as an atlatl hook.

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 balance point of the spear is the location where you can balance the spear on your finger and it stays parallel to the ground. Flexibility means how much the spear will bend without breaking. Try this out to see what you think!

Some experts suggest that the spear needs to be at least six feet long and made from a tree which tapers naturally in thickness, like a willow tree. This would allow the spear to have a stiff front tip end with the first 18 inches too thick to bend. The spear tail should be flexible with most of the bend in the last 18 inches.

If you balance the spear on your finger so that it remains horizontal, the balance point of a good spear should be between 38% to 45% of the way from the tip to the tail. A balance point of about 40% is average.

Find the balance point of your spear! Place the spear on your finger and move it until it is balanced horizontally. Mark the balance point with a pencil. Measure the number of inches from the tip of your spear to the balance point. Now measure the entire length of your spear. Record your measurements below.

Divide the balance point measurement by the entire length. Work until your answer is in hundredths. Percent refers to the number of parts out of a hundred, so when your answer is in hundredths, you have figured out the percentage.

Your spear may need fletching in order to help it fly properly. Fletching refers to feathers which are either glued or tied near the tail of the spear. Fletching can be attached near the tail of the spear or about 12 to 18 inches up the shaft. Experiment to find fletching that works best for your spear and atlatl.

Try attaching a weight in the middle of the atlatl to see if it adds to the distance you can throw your spear. Poverty Point people tied stones to the middle of their atlatls. Archaeologists call these atlatl weights or bannerstones. If you use a rock, be sure to tie it on very carefully so it doesn't fly off and hit you. Move the weight into different positions and determine the effect on your throwing distances.

After you have become an atlatl expert, have a contest in a cleared field or other "people free" area! See who can throw the longest distance or hit targets accurately! Be sure to have adults on hand for supervision!

drawing by Jon Gibson