The Willis Carey Wing of the Cashmere Museum in Cashmere, Washington includes an exhibit entitled Primitive Weapons which features the atlatl and the bow.
The atlatl is a wooden shaft—often about 18” in length—with a hook at one end and a handle at the other. The butt of the spear is engaged by the hook. Grasping the handle and steadying the spear shaft with the fingers, the spear can be hurled with great force. In his book The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon, Archaeologist L.S. Cressman notes:
“Thus the atlatl was in principle an extension of the arm and, by the added leverage, gave much greater power to the thrust of the spear.”
In his book Native American Weapons, Colin Taylor reports:
“The forward momentum was markedly increased by attaching a stone weight to the main body of the atlatl.”
With this arrangement, the spear can be thrown with greater force and for longer distances than if done by arm and hand alone. It is estimated that the atlatl dart has an impact over 150 times as intense as that of a hand-thrown spear.
The atlatl is effective and accurate at ranges up to 150 meters. One of the secrets to the distance and accuracy of the atlatl is found in the use of a light, flexible spear shaft. During the throw, the spear shaft acts like a spring in that it bends and stores energy. The shaft then straightens out as it pushes away from the atlatl, getting more energy in a spring-like effect.
Another important advantage of the atlatl is that it is a one-handed weapon. Many people have noted that it can be effectively used from a canoe or kayak and thus its origins may be associated with sea-coast hunters.
Atlatl darts sometimes had a foreshaft. The beveling at the end of the foreshaft allowed it to be attached to the longer spear. After striking the animal, the foreshaft and the spear would separate which allowed the foreshaft to work its way deeper into the animal. The spear could then be picked up and a new foreshaft quickly attached to it.
The Bow and arrow
In the Plateau area, the use of the bow and arrow had replaced the atlatl as a hunting weapon by about 1,500 years ago. The bow was made from a single piece of hard, elastic wood. The type of wood used for the bow depended on locality.
The arrow—the projectile shot from the bow—was made up of an arrowhead, an arrow shaft, arrow feathers, and a nock for fitting the arrow onto the bowstring. With regard to making the arrows, Colin Taylor writes:
“Arrow-making was a skilling occupation involving such activities as the selection of the wood, straightening and polishing the shaft, cutting and attaching the feathers and arrowhead, shaping the nock and notch, and channeling or painting the shaft and shaftment. All required lengthy experience and practice to ensure the production of an effective missile which would have a devastating effect on animal or man.”
Two or three feathers were attached to the end of the arrow to assure straight flight. The arrowhead could be made from stone, bone, or sometimes simply a fire-hardened point. Some arrows had a foreshaft which held the arrowhead. In some instances, a groover would be cut along the shaft to prevent warping and to facilitate blood flow when striking game.
The process of making arrowheads is not a random process: it is not simply a matter of banging two stones together. The toolmaker will take a piece of stone and shape it into a culturally acceptable form. Thus, in a culture the same basic tool shapes appear over and over again.
There are two techniques involved: the first step usually involves percussion flaking in which a core is struck by a hammer (usually made out of a hard stone, but “soft” hammers made from antler and wood are also used).
The flintknapping process usually begins with acore—a large stone from which flakes are struck. Depending on the type of stone used and the shape of the core, the flakes can have sharp edges and be used as cutting tools—knives and scrapers—without further modification.
While flakes are often struck from the core with direct percussion, indirect percussion can also be used. In his book Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools, John Whittaker explains:
“In indirect percussion a punch of antler or wood or other hard material is placed on the platform and struck with a hammer, instead of striking the stone directly with the hammer. This allows the force to be directed very precisely, an important factor in making blades, which requires a carefully prepared core with an even platform and regular ridges for the blades to follow.”
Once the basic shape of the tool is obtained, it can then be retouched using pressure flaking. John Whittaker writes:
“Pressure flaking involves removing flakes from the edge of a tool with an antler or bone tool, rather than striking it.”
Archaeologists Ian Shaw and Robert Jameson, in their book A Dictionary of Archaeology, report:
“Pressure flaking shows a much greater degree of precision and enables flint knappers to detach regular flakes.”
John Whittaker writes:
“The pressure-flaked ‘arrowhead’ is the most characteristic American stone artifact. Even people who know nothing about prehistory recognize ‘arrowheads.’”
To be technically precise these “arrowheads” are small bifacially flaked projectile points, some of which were used on arrows.
It should also be noted that stone projectile points often break and are re-fashioned. This means that small arrowheads may have started out as larger arrowheads or as spearpoints.
One important thing to understand about stone projectile points is that not all stone can be used. In flintknapping, Indian people needed stones that would break in a predictable fashion and would provide a sharp edge. In other words, arrowhead makers had to have some understanding of geology.
More Ancient America
Ancient America: Paleoindian stone tools in Washington's Plateau area
Ancient America: Avonlea, the early bow hunters
Ancient America: The Old Copper People
Ancient America: A very brief overview of stone quarries
Ancient America: A very short overview of the prehistory of the Grand Canyon
Ancient America: The East Wenatchee Clovis Site (museum tour)
Ancient America: Ohio Ceremonial Earthworks (museum tour)
Ancient America: A very brief overview of the Hopewell moundbuilders