All Hail the Atlatl

Woman the Able Hunter



As we have been culturally taught, women are considered the “weaker” sex and yet given the chance, women can easily rise to the challenge of unscrewing a jar, opening a stuck window, and moving furniture using a little ingenuity. And now, a recent study of an archaic tool called the atlatl, or spear thrower, proves that this kind of female ingenuity has been serving women for centuries and making them competent hunters alongside men. The atlatl is a simple J-shaped piece of carved wood with a handle on one end and a shallow cup at the other end. The atlatl is held along the throwing arm and extends the leverage of the arm. When a spear or long dart is set into the cup end and the arm tosses the projectile while holding tight to the atlatl, the dart or spear is released with greater velocity, which means it flies faster and further, because of the extended leverage. It’s made usually from a long slim piece of wood or bone that is carved into a shape like the runner of a Victorian sled, a sort of j-shaped thing that holds a lightweight spear or dart wedged into the curve of the J. The user holds the atlatl and its inserted weapon aloft with one hand and launches the projectile by gripping the atlatl and moving the arm overhead and then trusting it forward releasing the projectile into the air. As the weapon flies, it has more velocity, that is speed, and a farther range (a good thing when hunting dangerous animals) than using a simple hand-grip around a spear (or javelin) because the atlatl makes for a better-performing lever. As the authors of a recent study of the atlatl put it, “Launching a dart with an atlatl essentially employs a class 1 lever: force is applied by hand to the short arm of the lever, moving the dart at the long arm of the lever, with the wrist as a fulcrum in between.”


Interestingly, the atlatl seems to have been incorporated into hunting tools before the discovery of the bow and arrow, probably since the Paleolithic but no one knows how old this accessory might be. The atlatl has been found across the world—in Australia, North America, New Guinea, China, South and Central America, and Europe—which means across various cultures. It may have been invented repeatedly or passed among cultures by a process called cultural diffusion where goods move from one culture to another when people meet to trade or celebrate and then incorporate their own structural ideas and decorative flourishes. Since it was invented over and over independently or passed along from one group to another that suggests that ancient humans had a good understanding of the physics of throwing and what it takes to fell an animal while on the run or hiding in the bush.


More interesting, modern scientists have recently tested the use of atlatls to determine if hunting add-on might have been a gender equalizer which would support the idea that women could have been hunters alongside men.  In a series of tests, anthropologists led by Michael Benner of Kent State University asked 42 males and 56 females who had never before handled these weapons to launch a lightweight dart with an atlatl or toss a bare javelin at a foam target. And they did it ten times for each weapon. Using radar guns, the researchers were able to measure the velocity of the throw. Overall, the atlatl made the dart a much faster “weapon delivery system” as expected, but surprisingly with the aid of an atlatl women and men could throw the dart with equal velocity. It seems that the atlatl equalized the superior grip strength that men usually enjoy with a plain javelin and allowed women to throw like a man. That newly understood atlatl bump-up translates into the possibility that our female ancestors probably hunted along with men, or despite them, to provide food for their families and their group.


For way too long, man the hunter has been put forth as the breadwinner in small-scale hunting and gathering communities, and that strongly held perspective has influenced the division of labor in modern times. But the idea that women are the “weaker” sex has always seemed absurd to women who carry infants, law books, and laundry and run around all day with no help from any man. And the idea that women would be excluded from a major source of feeding themselves and their families has also seemed ridiculous. It turns out, that all we needed was a slim piece of wood (or maybe a laptop computer) to call for equal pay for equal work.


       I read the new atlatl article while sitting on a bench at the Brooklyn Promenade with Lowe Manhattan in front of me and the Statue of Liberty standing on her platform in the East River to my left. There she is, standing pound, raising what most think is a torch and flame to welcome immigrants, lighting the way for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. But as I see it, what she’s really waving is not a torch but her atlatl, showing women everywhere that they can fell a gazelle and feed their families just as successfully as a man, maybe even more so. She is lifting that atlatl by the golden door and inviting all women to join in the hunt.


(Today there are atlatl enthusiasts aiming spears at bullseyes for fun using finely carved and decorated atlatls that are collectors’ items.)


 also published on