Friday, March 14, 2014

The Pros and Cons of hunting with an atlatl versus hunting with the bow and arrow Or why was the bow and arrow invented in the Old World 15,000 years ago but was not being used in the New World until a 1000 years ago?


“A” is for arrow head and atlatl. This week we are going to briefly compare atlatl or spear thrower technology with archery technology. In Europe, Asia and Africa based on cave paintings and the reduced size of spear points, the bow and arrow replaces the atlatl between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. In eastern North America, based on the widespread use of small triangular projectile points known ethnographically to be arrow points, it is generally agreed that archery technology doesn’t appear until the Late Woodland or Late Prehistoric period, at approximately 1000 AD. The obvious question is why did it take so long? If the bow and arrow is such a great invention, it should have come over with the first migration of Paleoindians or at least shortly thereafter. However, maybe archaeologists are wrong in their assumption about triangular points representing the first appearance of the bow and arrow and  there are older arrow points, dating to the Archaic or even Paleoindian period (10,000 - 11,200 B.P.), that were being used on arrows that aren’t recognized as such.

The problem with determining the use of the bow and arrow (or the atlatl for that matter) is that almost all of the components are made from perishable (organic) materials and are very rarely found in the archaeological record. The stone point is all that is left. Over the past decade, archaeologists have been examining the dating of the archery system in the New World. Much of this work is experimental, using bow and arrow and atlatl replicas to determine the characteristics of each. It turns out that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

Spear thrower technological system - consists of a wooden spear thrower and an arrow-like dart, one to three meters in length with fletching or feathers for stability in flight. The use of the atlatl dates to at least 25,000 years ago and probably tens of thousands of years earlier. It requires considerable skill but it clearly represents an improvement over the hand held spear. The dart can be propelled up to 50 meters although there is a reduction in accuracy beyond 27 m (Hutchings and Bruchert 1997:892).  This has advantages while stalking animals but it also provides protection for the thrower from the animal or in warfare, the enemy. The speed varies between 20 m/s and 30 m/s (Tomka 2013: 563). Because of its weight, “the kinetic energy and momentum of a dart at impact tends to be relatively high” (Tomka 2013:562). Therefore, it is particularly effective against large (bison) and medium (deer) size prey. Compared to the bow and arrow, the atlatl could be used with one hand and it was not affected by moisture as much as the bow and arrow. However, it is more difficult to use in a dense forested environment than in a more open setting.

Archery technological system - consists of a bow constructed of one to three pieces of wood and a fletched arrow. The effective killing distance on medium size prey using a typical Indian bow is 45 meters (Tomka 2013: 562) and this is almost twice as effective as the atlatl. The speed of an arrow is almost twice as fast as that of an atlatl dart (Tomka 2013: 563). It works well in a woodland environment and it could be used while moving compared to the stationary stance required of the atlatl (Railey 2010:263). The increased speed of the arrow improved accuracy and penetrating power making it a somewhat more lethal system on small to medium sized animals (deer), but not large animals. In addition, the speed reduced the time prey had to escape.

            In general, the spear thrower is more effective in somewhat open settings and against large animals that are slow to respond to attack. Archery is most effective on medium to small animals, especially in forested settings.

            Recently, archaeologists (see the additional reading list) have been measuring projectile points in order to identify changes in size to identify the appearance of the bow and arrow archaeological contexts. Unfortunately, the results have not been conclusive so the timing of bow and arrow technology remains unclear. Based on performance characteristics, its introduction into the New World probably depended on regional conditions along with cultural factors. During Paleoindian times, the atlatl may have been the preferred hunting weapon in the open forest of the Late Pleistocene era (11,700 years ago). In contrast, bow and arrow technology may have replaced the atlatl during the Archaic period when hunting deer and elk in the closed forest of the eastern woodlands. However, in the Great Plains of the American West, the atlatl would have been very effective in hunting large animals such as elk and bison and it may have been used until very late in prehistory.

We hope you have enjoyed this week’s blog. It highlights a significant but poorly understood technological transition in North America. It also highlights the fact that the archaeological record can be very challenging even when dealing with significant cultural changes. This blog is based on a research paper being prepared by Pochereth Payne who is working on her senior thesis at Mercyhurst College in Erie. She conducted research in our lab in August of 2013. This represents another example of the opportunities the State Museum has to offer to students that will enhance their educational experience and professional careers.

Additional reading  
Hamm, Jim
1991    Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans: A Step-by-Step Guide to Wooden Bows. Guilford: The Lyons Press.

Hildebrandt, William R., Jerome H. King
2012    Distinguishing Between Darts and Arrows in the Archaeological Record: Implications for Technological Change in the American West. American Antiquity 77(4):789-799.

Hutchings, W. Karl and Lorenz Bruchert
1997    Spear Thrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research. Antiquity 71: 890-897.

Justice, Noel D.
1987    Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States: A Modern Survey and Reference.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 

Jochim, Michael.
2011    The Upper Paleolithic. In European Prehistory: A Survey 2nd Edition. Sarunas Milisauskas, editor. Pp. 67-118. New York: Springer.

Lombard, Marlize, and Miriam Noël Haidle
2012    Thinking a Bow-and-arrow Set: Cognitive Implications of Middle Stone Age Bow and Stone-tipped Arrow Technology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22:237-264.

Mason, Otis
1894    North American Bows, Arrows, and Quivers. Technical Report for 1893. Washington D.C. The Smithsonian Report.

Nuttall , Zelia
1891    The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology.

Rhodes, Harry
2013    Taking Ownership of Distance in the Stone Age with Spear, Atlatl, and Archery: Prehistoric Weapon Systems and the Domination of Distance. Comparative Civilizations Review 69:45-53.

Shott, Michael J.
1997    Stones and Shafts Redux: The metric Discrimination of Chipped-Stone Dart and Arrow Points. American Antiquity 62(1) 86-101.

Tomka, Steve
2013    The Adoption of the Bow and Arrow: A Model Based on Experimental Performance Characteristics. American Antiquity 78(3) 553-569.

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  1. I disagree with the concept that the bow and arrow replaced the atlatl at a particular point in time. There were cultures that used both until after European contact such as the Aztecs. There are several other examples of the dual use of the bow and arrow and atlatl. It is more likely that the demise of atlatl use occurred shortly after contact with the use of trade materials like metal arrowheads and fishhooks. (Atlatls are very effective for fishing.)