Category Archives: History

Where does the word “atlatl” come from? Thank Zelia Nuttal.

Zelia

One of the people we as atlatlists owe a great debt of gratitude to is Zelia Nuttal. She was a polyglot who used her mastery of several languages to discover and write about pre Aztec cultures in Central America. She had a working knowledge of Nahuatl the language of the Aztecs who dominated what is now central Mexico during the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican history.

Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall wrote an article in 1891 called “The Atlatl or Spear-thrower of the Ancient Mexicans”. It is very likely that the word “atlatl” was brought into the English language via her publication. Nuttal was born in San Francisco, on September 6, 1857 and died April 12, 1933. She was an American archaeologist and anthropologist, who specialized in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts. She traced the Mixtec codex now called the Codex Zouche-Nuttall and wrote the introduction to its first facsimile publication (Peabody Museum, Harvard), 1902. She was educated in France, Germany, and Italy, and at Bedford College, London.

This is sourced from a Wikipedia article. -Bob Berg

Melting Ice Sheet Reveals 10,000 Year Old Atlatl Dart

Pictures and stories were all over this week of a 10,000 year-old atlatl dart which showed up after an ice sheet melted near Yellowstone National Park.

Craig Lee of the University of Colorado at Boulder discovered the dart. The three foot long dart was bent with a sharp kink in it when discovered. It had a projectile point on one end and a cup or dimple on the other end. It is a birch sapling. To read more about this find and to see a photo, check out this link: Atlatl Dart Discovered

If you are ready to check out some newer atlatl darts, Thunderbird Atlatl has wooden and cane darts available in sizes ranging from five foot to seven foot. Darts are sold individually or in bundles of seven darts. It’s best to order at least three darts as shipping is based on length rather than weight and it’s difficult to ship one dart.

You can order through our web page or give us a call at 800-836-4520 or try our cell phone at 607-743-4379.

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Some of the darts manufactured by Thunderbird Atlatl

Traditional Darts

Bannerstones and how they relate to the Atlatl

An Argument Against the Notion That Bannerstones are Atlatl Weights

The following is a recently updated article on bannerstones written and researched by Robert S. Berg of Thunderbird Atlatl. Thoughts, questions and comments are welcomed. Thunderbird Atlatl will be publishing a booklet on this theory in the next few months.

Archaeologists have been agonizing for a long time over the use of banner stones. Some have offered that they are atlatl weights or ceremonial pieces. Others have suggested that they are for drilling, cordage making, or fire making. My theory proposes that they are part of a kit of tools used to make and repair atlatls and darts.

My theory has met with a lot of resistance because of the works of William S. Webb (1882-1964), who proposed that bannerstones were part of an atlatl. He cites “in situ” evidence which consists mainly of bannerstones found in line with atlatl handles and hooks in graves that archaeologists dug up during the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive water control system in the southeast during the early part of the 20th Century. He proposed these theories without a complete knowledge of how atlatls work. I do not believe that he ever hunted with one or tried to make or repair an atlatl or dart in the field with Stone Age style equipment. It is possible that he never even fully grasped the techniques as to how they were actually used as the techniques for using atlatls were lost or (possibly understood by only a few experimenters) then eventually revived in the 1980s by people like Bill Tate, Ray Madden, and William R. Perkins.

The bannerstone is an artifact that has been considered an atlatl weight since William S. Webb said it was in the first half of the 20th century. Several booklets and reports were published on the subject based on several excavated graves from Indian Knoll Kentucky. He described what he termed in situe finds which had an atlatl handle a bannerstone and an atlatl hook in order proving that the bannerstone was part of the atlatl. Some of his publications: Indian Knoll, Atlatls and Bannerstones, Excavations at Indian Knoll.

I believe his work is flawed. First and foremost bannerstones make no sense by their configuration to be atlatl weights. To discover the truth, I examined many examples of durable remains that are found in almost any Indian artifact collection. I made replicas and filled in the missing pieces with wood, cordage, glue, feathers, leather and bark, by way of a series of experiments. The experiments were designed to produce working, practical weapons, tools and techniques similar to what may have been used by the Woodland era American Indian. Then I field tested them during actual hunting and fishing expeditions. I started out this endeavor not only to develop this theory but also to pursue a personal quest to learn the primitive skills necessary to hunt and fish using the atlatl.

I experimented with bannerstones, gorgets, atlatls and darts, celts, projectile points, fire by friction, cordage making, and primitive hunting techniques using mainly the atlatl for more than fifteen years. Much of what I did required learning and mastering difficult and complex skills such as flint knapping, marksmanship and hunting with an atlatl, atlatl fishing, wood working with stone age style tools, cordage making, tracking, and making fires with friction. I now consider myself to be fairly proficient in all of these skills. I have hunted big game with atlatls successfully with more than twenty kills. I am also accepted among primitive technology students and practitioners as a teacher.

My conclusion is that bannerstones were unlikely to have been used as atlatl weights, except on modern atlatls, which is contrary to the myth that has developed from William S. Webb’s theories. The idea was proposed as absolute truth by Webb who is no longer alive to argue with. Now we have lots of people who have run with the idea. They have invested time in making so called replica atlatls using bannerstone weights or writing various articles about bannerstone weights with mystic properties like increasing velocity or silencing the dart. They all followed the leader like lemmings over the cliff.

The atlatls allegedly found with bannerstones on them didn’t have shafts upon which the bannerstone, atlatl hook and handle were attached. Only a very small percentage of bannerstones found thus far, have been found in situ in the way which caused Webb to theorize that they were parts that went together. Since Webb’s theories I have heard of no new finds that are similar to those that he reported on. I would add here that thousands of bannerstones have been found all over the place in North America, but they have only been found with hooks and handles in digs done by Webb or I might say digs done by Webb’s crews. It is unclear whether Webb actually participated in the digs. If his work were submitted to a group of peers today it would be highly suspect. It’s possible that the bannerstones were simply in the same container with atlatls when the owners of them were buried. Webb doesn’t even discuss that possibility.

Many people have suggested to me that there are petroglyphs that prove that bannerstones were atlatl weights. A picture at www.thudscave.com/petroglyphs/atlatls.htm
Shows what some people believe is positive proof, but I disagree. However, if those pictures depict bannerstones, it seems that they would weigh about 10 pounds or more. Also the pictures are way too much like cartoon figures to get any real information from them. It is difficult to determine anything from the drawings because of the drawing style.
There are other reasons I think bannerstones were not atlatl weights. I have examined hundreds of them in various conditions from completely whole to broken bits and pieces. I looked carefully at the holes and how they were drilled. I looked at wear patterns and I measured the holes. Some of the holes were as small as 1/4 inch, many were 3/8″, and the average was about half an inch, the largest I have seen was over an inch. Most of the holes seemed too small for an atlatl shaft that would work well. I compared many bannerstones that were broken from the Fogelman collection (150 or so pieces) many had holes that were 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″ up to One and 1/8 inches.

What they all had in common, where the bannerstone was complete enough to detect this, was that they were all balanced as if they were designed to spin. I maintain that it is evident and incontrovertible that bannerstones were balanced around the central hole because they were meant to spin. Atlatls don’t need to spin. I asked myself- what would a hunter gatherer needed that spins? Something to make string, fire or drill holes is the answer. I think it is the string making tool that is the best answer. It’s the best answer because string is necessary to haft points and tie on fletching among other handy applications for cordage in the hunter gatherer’s lifestyle.

Bannerstones are also all over the place as far as weight is concerned. Most of them seem to me to be too heavy to be atlatl weights. They are very apt to break in use as an atlatl weight and actual atlatl weights can be made in various ways and attached to the atlatl much easier than drilling a hole through a rock with grit and a reed.

I believe the bannerstone was used as a spindle weight to make string to tie on fletching and projectile points, and possibly a spindle weight to turn and taper dart shafts. It was not part of the atlatl at all but was carried in a kit, made from bark or leather, with the atlatl. It was probably fastened by pressure fit onto a round stick about the same length as an atlatl. The kit would most likely also contain a wad of fiber, several flint points, scrapers, pine pitch or other adhesive material, and some feathers for fletching.

A typical dart uses about three yards length of thread to haft the point, whip the shaft behind the point, tie on the fletching and whip the dart shaft in front of the knock dimple. The time saved is enormous considering that on a typical hog hunt I have expended as many as seven darts that I either had to replace because of damage or repair. This use is an effective time and labor saving feature, which alone could explain why bannerstones were carried by early American Indians.

But there is more. In the process of making darts I also used the bannerstone as a fly weight to help to make my darts round and also to taper them. This experiment was partly conducted at Mercyhurst College with several students at in Northern Pennsylvania. We cut down an ash tree and split it into dart sized staves using only stone and bone tools. I used flint scrapers to shape the trapezoidal shaped stave into roughly a round shaft. I formed the front end of the shaft so it would fit tightly into the bannerstone and spun the dart powering the device with a simple bow like one would use to start a fire by friction. I used ground flint chips as an abrasive by adding them dry into a cone shaped piece of leather that I held in my left hand around the spinning dart shaft. The result was impressive as this method created a perfectly round shaft that was smooth and consistent.

Another problem with the bannerstone is its weight. Many of them simply are too heavy to be atlatl weights. I have seen bannerstones that weigh more than a pound. Most weigh more than 100 grams. Compared with objects known to be atlatl weights the difference is very significant. Typical atlatl weights that have been found that tie to the side of an atlatl weigh an average of 3 ounces.

There is an ethnological model for the use of a bannerstone like spindle weight in the form of the Navajo spindle. The Southwest Indians have been using this design for longer than they remember. The Navajo spindle has a wooden wheel that works just like the bannerstone did in my experiments. I helped with an experiment for a woman from Ohio, who was gathering information for her doctoral thesis; she compared (among other things) the speed of hand cordage making to spindle made cordage. In the time it took me to produce one foot of hand made cordage I made about three yards of thread on the bannerstone spindle whorl.

A typical dart uses about three yards length of twisted thread to haft the point, whip the shaft behind the point, tie on the fletching and whip the dart shaft in front of the knock dimple. The time saved is enormous considering that on a typical big game hunt many darts would be used and damaged. This use of a tool to speed up making and repairing darts would be effective for saving time and labor. This alone could explain why bannerstones were carried by early American Indians.

I have no proof that I am right either but I can see through a tall tale and bannerstones as atlatl weights is a tall tale. I have made several atlatls with bannerstone weights and they work alright but there is nothing that the bannerstone does to the atlatl that improves how it works to make it worthwhile drilling a hole through a rock with a reed and grit, grinding and polishing the object for as long as a week. A simple rock from a stream bed will do the same thing.

Although my experiments and the evidence are certainly not conclusive, it is compelling. What I can say for sure is that there are lots of problems with bannerstones as atlatl weights. Whereas I perceive from my perusal of the evidence that I have been able to check, coupled with a great deal of experience in using atlatls that practical uses for the bannerstone exist that can be easily replicated that prove to be significant advantages as a tool rather than as an as an atlatl weight to a hunter in stone age America.

Copyright 2007

Atlatl Myths

The atlatl and dart are mythically endowed with powers that are highly overrated by several atlatlists. The first myth is that the dart flexes and compresses, storing energy in order to push itself away from the atlatl. Another myth is that there is a specific magic formula for the optimum length of the dart to the length of the atlatl. The third myth is that atlatl weights increase the power or speed of the dart as it rebounds from the atlatl. Although these are fascinating concepts they are not true.

The reason an atlatl dart needs to have a certain flex is that there are lateral components to the vectors that are necessary to cast a dart caused by its non linear acceleration. This is caused by the way the atlatl must work due to the human anatomy. The atlatl must go through an arch to cast the dart. As it does so, the back of the dart is pushed first up then down as it accelerates forward. The dart must be designed to bend enough to allow this to happen. Upon close inspection of fast action pictures of the moment when the dart disengages from the atlatl, flexible atlatls remain flexed after disengaging from the dart. This phenomenon leads me to believe that the energy stored in the flexing atlatl is lost rather than transferred to the dart.

The dart to atlatl length ratio has more to do with the strength of the atlatlist and his or her goal in throwing the dart. Smaller, shorter darts will work just as well in the same atlatl as longer heavier darts to achieve the specific results desired by the atlatlist. Distance darts tend to be lighter and shorter whereas hunting darts are longer and heavier. Darts meant to be used for target shooting work better if they are lighter and long, yet with a fairly sturdy spine especially if the target is set at 15 to 20 meters. The long light darts work best for the target shooter because of their lower and straighter trajectory. The dart needs to be “tuned” to the capabilities and the goals of the atlatlist rather than the dart being sized to the atlatl. The flexibility of the dart needs to be matched to the degree that is necessary for it to be cast effectively by a particular atlatlist. That depends on the casting technique of the atlatlist more than anything else.

Atlatl weights add to the stability of the cast rather than to its power, speed or penetration. It takes energy to accelerate the extra weight of the stone. Some say that the energy is returned to the system to give it more power. This theory may erroneously lead you to believe that the stone weight somehow acts as an amplifier of the power exerted in the throw. Simply said, you get out of a cast what you put into it. It again depends on the atlatlist, his technique, and how hard he or she throws the dart.

Bannerstones are unlikely to have been used as atlatl weights, except on modern atlatls. The idea was proposed as absolute truth by William S. Webb who is no longer alive to argue with. Now we have lots of people who have run with the idea. They have invested time in making so called replica atlatls using bannerstone weights or writing various articles about bannerstone weights with mystic properties like increasing velocity or silencing the dart. They all followed the leader like lemmings over the cliff.

The atlatls allegedly found with bannerstones on them didn’t even have shafts upon which the bannerstone, atlatl hook and handle were attached. They were found “in situ” which means that they were found in place in a way which Webb suggested that they were parts that went together. I would add here that thousands of bannerstones have been found all over the place in North America, but they have only been found with hooks and handles in digs done by Webb. I should say digs done by Webb’s crews. It isn’t clear that he actually did the digs. If his work were submitted to a group of peers today it would be highly suspect. It’s possible that the bannerstones were simply in the same container with atlatls. Webb doesn’t even discuss that possibility.

Many people have suggested to me that there are petroglyphs that prove that bannerstones were atlatl weights. A picture at www.thudscave.com/petroglyphs/atlatls.htm
shows what some people believe is proof positive but if those are bannerstones it seems that they would weigh about 10 pounds or more. Also the pictures are way too much like cartoon figures to get any real information from them.

There are other reasons I think bannerstones were not atlatl weights. I have examined hundreds of them in various conditions from whole to bits and pieces. I looked carefully at the holes and how they were drilled. I looked at wear patterns and I measured the holes. Some of the holes were as small as Ā¼ inch, many were 3/8ā€¯, and the average was about Ā½ inch, the largest I have seen was over an inch. Most of the holes seemed too small for an atlatl shaft that would work well.

What they all had in common, where the bannerstone was whole enough to detect this, was that they were all balanced. That is to say that they looked like they were designed to spin. Atlatls don’t need to spin. What would a hunter gatherer need that spins? Something to make string, fire or drill holes is the answer. I think it is the string making tool that is the best answer. It’s the best answer because string is necessary to haft points and tie on fletching among other handy applications for cordage in the hunter gatherer’s lifestyle.

Bannerstones are also all over the place as far as weight is concerned. Most of them seem to me to be too heavy to be atlatl weights. They are very apt to break in use as an atlatl weight and atlatl weights can be attached to the atlatl in any number of ways much easier than drilling a hole through a rock with grit and a reed.

For each kind of dart material there are a few constants which are inherent to it. They are the material’s density, modulus of elasticity, and vibration dampening characteristics. There are other characteristics but these three affect how the dart works the most. Dart materials may include wood, aluminum, bamboo, fiberglass and perhaps many others. If there is a formula to be devised as a guide to making good darts it would be one that shows a ratio of dart diameter, density, elasticity through different dart sizes, with the ultimate spine being determined by how hard the atlatlist tends to throw.

© Bob Berg

Posted by thunder

History of the Fingerless or “Y” Atlatl

Prior to 1990 or so I came up with a design for an atlatl that later turned into the “Wyalusing” It was the first atlatl ever recorded to have “rests”. I have looked for other examples that may have existed prior to this but has only found one type of atlatl that had any type of rest. That particular type of atlatl is from Indonesia. However that style of rest was used differently as the thumb was used to press the dart against the side of a protrusion coming out of the side of the atlatl, rather than the index finger and thumb or just the index finger holding the dart in a shallow groove.

In 1991 I went to Flint Ridge Ohio where I met Carl Fry who was also interested in atlatls. We started showing some flintknappers how atlatls worked and other people joined in. I proudly displayed my newly designed atlatl which was to eventually become the one named the “Wyalusing”. Among those who joined the group was none other than Ray Strischek. I remember well the day I taught Ray how to use the atlatl. I remember him because of his red hair and how he was so thrilled with the atlatl.

Another atlatlist from that time was Robert Stewart from Cincinatti Ohio. Bob Stewart made a version of my atlatl that changed the design of the “Wyalusing” a little so that no fingers were needed to hold the dart on the rest. Ray then went home and came up with the first “Y” atlatl. And on it went through a few other atlatlists including Chuck Butorjac and Terry Keefer. Many others made various versions of the “Y” atlatl but there needs to be no conjecture from whence it or any atlatl that has a rest on it, came from. You may check out this history through Ray and Bob Stewart.

At the time I had no idea that it was a unique idea but when I received as a gift a book called Zur Technologie der jungpalaeolithischen Sperschleuder by Ulrich Stodiek Pub. 1993 of Germany I looked for examples of atlatls with rests and found none. The book is an exhaustive treatise on atlatls from all over the world. Prior to my designing of precursors to what is now the modern atlatl I don’t believe there was anyone making atlatls that were not based on actual artifacts. So you really don’t have to be vague about the origins of these types of atlatls. All modern atlatls with rests on them are derivative works based originally on mine.

Incidentally, Cheryll and I went out to Flint Ridge almost every year in May and September from 1991 until recently. The atlatl contests that we enjoy today at Flint Ridge are the result of my constant effort over the years making, selling and teaching folks about the atlatl. Ray Strischek really pushed it too. It was sort of like lighting a fuse. The contest at Letchworth started because I ran the Eastern Seaboard contest a couple of years in Apalachin, NY after Gary Fogleman passed it on to me from its original beginnings in State College in Pennsylvania. I took it to Letchworth and ran it for most of the time it was at Trailside.

Gary took it back over recently as I have all I can do to run my atlatl business at the shows. Cheryll and I also brought the atlatl to Pennsic which was really a long shot but it paid off with the Aztec/Cortez connection with the late Middle Ages. Many of the atlatl events that are held around the country (especially in the east) owe their existance to the fact that I have either sold atlatls to tens of thousands of people or at least taught them about them.