Imagine you’re living in Elkhart County 10,000 years ago. It’s the middle of the ice ages, the glaciers are receding and revealing a new landscape of brush, lakes and rivers. You, a Paleoindian, are a nomad traveling across the area in a small group in search of food. You gather berries from bushes and shrubs when you can, but your main food source keeps moving. You and your group must constantly follow it to survive.
Then, you and your party see what you’ve been searching for: a herd of mammoths.
Now that you’ve found them, the real work begins.
Patrick McGuire is the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s curator of education. He is a regular contributor to The Elkhart Truth through the museum’s community blog, Elkhart County History
Paleoindians lived this scenario over and over again throughout their lifetimes. Mammoths were a main source of food for these ancient people, and also provided clothing and tools. When it came to hunting these animals, Paleoindians equipped themselves with what was state-of-the-art technology at the time: the atlatl.
What the atlatl consisted of was a piece of wood only a few feet in length that acted as a shaft, with a handle at one end and either a cup or a point at the other. In the middle of the wooden shaft, there would be a bannerstone that was used as a counterweight to improve accuracy and decrease the amount of noise made when it was used. This tool was used to throw spears much further and faster than you could by just using your hands. The spear would be placed on top of the atlatl, with the atlatl’s point placed against the butt of the spear. Paleoindians would use this weapon by holding it in one hand over their shoulders and making a motion similar to how you’d throw a football. As their arms moved forward and they flicked their wrists, the spear would be sent flying towards their targets.
It is hard to believe these people were brave enough to go after gigantic animals like mammoths and mastodons using this weapon. Imagine hunting an elephant with a spear today. No, thank you.
Even further, imagine it being angry and charging you after you’ve tried to kill it once. No, thank you, again.
On the other hand, 10,000 years ago this was a great improvement upon what people previously had. Using atlatls, they could hunt from further distances, which I imagine was very important. Also, atlatls greatly increased the efficiency of hunting. It is believed that by using atlatls, spears could reach speeds near 100 miles per hour. With that speed the weapon would be deadlier, resulting in Paleoindians not having to run from angry animals chasing them down.
These weapons were used for thousands of years by many cultures all over the world. In fact, they were still being used by the Aztec people when the Spanish attacked and conquered the Mexican empire in the 1500s. They were used as weapons, and the spears thrown by atlatls were strong enough to pierce the Spanish soldiers’ chain mail. Despite technology advancing and progressing, atlatls have carved out a niche market for themselves and are still used in competitions and hunting today.
If you are interested in learning more about atlatls and trying your hand at using one, we’re having a class as part of our Family Fun Day event. The event will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, August 7 at the Elkhart County Historical Museum. It costs $1 per person or $3 per family. We promise no mammoths will charge you when you try out the atlatl, though we will have a target to see how well you can do. Come out and try this ancient tool!