Collection Corner



April 21, 2017

Sabre Moore

Stewart Cook uses an atlatl to throw a spear outside the museum last summer.

Later this month, I will use the museum's teaching collection to conduct an atlatl training at Carter County High and Elementary schools. We sponsored a similar event last year as part of the Days of '85 celebration. However, the inspiration for including atlatls, or spear throwers, in our museum programming goes back to the excavation of Mill Iron Site.

It was the late 1980s in Carter County, Montana. Archaeologists had been working for days to excavate what would become the second oldest paleoindian site in the state. Bones had been discovered in what archaeologists had termed the "camp processing area" in which ancient American Indians had butchered bison over 11,000 years ago. Within the site, a mammoth rib fragment was found, stained with the dust of the sediment around it and showing the signs of age. The bone on either end was jagged, broken and it had long gashes - evidence of rodent teeth. A cleaning revealed the mark of a human hand: a carefully shaped hole. This led some to speculate that it had been used as a haft along with a dart and atlatl to aid hunters on the grasslands of long ago. 

Now, you may wonder, what is an atlatl? To answer that, we must take a step back and imagine life as it was right here in Carter County during the Pleistocene era. Large mammals roamed the land, including mammoths, saber toothed tigers, camels, and a species of bison with long horns - ancestors of the animals you see today in Yellowstone Park. Humans moved throughout the land, living in small groups and hunting mammoth and bison, among others, for food. These herbivores, known as bison antiquus, were much larger than their later descendants, standing over 15 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 3,500 lbs. They were difficult to kill and hunting them required great skill with the weapon of the time - the spear. Bravery was an essential attribute, as people had to get close to their target in order to make an effective hit.

The invention of the atlatl reduced this danger, as it enabled a light spear to be thrown quickly, at a greater distance. Hunters with this tool could launch a light spear, or dart, one-handed, at speeds of up to 100 mph. The distance varies, depending upon the type and length of dart, with an average of 30 yards or more. 

Take, for example, a ball thrower. This piece of curved, flexible plastic has a cradle for a tennis ball, which is similar to the hook at the rear end of the atlatl, holding the item in place. The motion of drawing the arm back to throw is the same, and the ball releases from the front of the swing, flying over the ground to land some distance away. Without the ball thrower, the tennis ball doesn't reach nearly as far, and your pet is likely to bring it back quickly. The atlatl functions in the same way as a ball thrower and the throwing technique is similar.

That's all for this week! As a reminder, the museum will be hosting the Miles City BLM for an artifact roadshow on Friday, April 21 from 1-4 p.m. Hope to see you there!


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