University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Atlatl Battle


By: James Moss

October 16, 2014

Cardboard Mammoth Created by Student Engagement Coordinator Stephanie Mach.
Cardboard Mammoth crafted by Student Engagement Coordinator Stephanie Mach.

Earlier this month, Penn students gathered at the Penn Museum to learn how to hunt dangerous big game just like their ancestors. Atlatl is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for Spear-thrower, a tool used throughout the world, from the Middle Paleolithic up through today. First in a series of Making Workshops sponsored by the Museum’s new Academic Engagement Department, the event included pizza, power tools, colored markers, and pointy sticks.

The evening started with brief talks from an archaeologist and a mechanical engineer. Andean archaeologist Dr. Clark Erickson spoke about the use of the atlatl in prehistory, and how the archaeological record reveals strategies that these hunters would have used.  Dr. Erickson also brought out several atlatls from the Museum’s collection. Aerospace engineer Dr. Bruce Kothmann spoke about how the effectiveness of the weapon may be altered as the length of the atlatl and the spear are varied, and discussed how optimal design is often balanced against other human concerns, such as tradition and aesthetics.

Archaeologist Dr. Clark Erickson (top) and Aerospace Engineer Dr. Bruce Kothmann (bottom) speak about atlatls from their respective professional perspectives.
Archaeologist Dr. Clark Erickson (top) and Aerospace Engineer Dr. Bruce Kothmann (bottom) speak about atlatls from their respective professional perspectives.

Fueled by pizza and soda, the students then learned to craft their own atlatl darts for the hunt, complete with metal tips and fletching. Thus armed, the group proceeded to one of the Museum’s inner courtyards, where a lone cardboard mammoth had gotten separated from its herd.

Penn students and Museum staff crafting their own personalized atlatl darts.
Penn students and Museum staff crafting their own personalized atlatl darts.

The darts flew surprisingly well (though the store-bought darts were heavier, and thus had greater range and accuracy). The lone bull escaped unscathed for a time, before succumbing to a barrage of hits as the hunters found their range. In a flash of inspired historical analogy (of the kind that archaeologists are reticent to use), it was decided that when hunting as a group, prehistoric hunters must have attacked from the same direction, or they surely would have been quickly felled by friendly fire.

Penn Senior Monica Fenton launches a dart at the grazing mammoth.
Penn Senior Monica Fenton launches a dart at the grazing mammoth.

Join us on November 5th for our next Making Workshop Ancient Jewelry! Learn about adornment in the Classical world and make a replica from wire and precious stones, with Dr. Jane Hickman (Editor of the Museum’s Expedition magazine, and jewelry scholar) and Justine Frederick (Philadelphia Jewelry Designer).


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