The Atlatl

All, Stories

Seeing an arrowhead can evoke vivid images of Native Americans with bow and arrow in hand stalking prey. However, most of Ohio’s stone tools tell a different tale: the tale of the atlatl.

The atlatl is essentially a simple machine that uses leverage to increase the dart’s velocity. The same principle of throwing an atlatl applies to those who have used plastic tennis ball throwers to play fetch with a dog. One throws an atlatl in a similar way as Olympic track and field athletes release a javelin. However, with an atlatl, the thrower flicks the wrist to push the dart down towards the target. In the hands of a skilled hunter, they could be very effective.



Replica atlatl

It turns out that atlatls are really quite old. The history of atlatls spans thousands of years and across many cultures. They’ve been found on every continent except Africa and Antartica. It is very likely that one of your ancestors used an atlatl!

The bow and arrow is a relative newcomer to the North American continent. According to the archaeological record, Ohio Native Americans did not start using the bow and arrow until about 700 A.D. So most stone artifacts that we call arrowheads were actually used as either a spear tip or a dart tip.


Arrowhead found recently in Miami Whitewater Forest near the Timberlakes Trail

Atlatls vary in design, but all have a few key features: a handle and a hook or socket to hold the dart. Some contain finger loops made of leather to achieve even more power. Still others had weights attached, called bannerstones. It is still unclear as to the purpose of bannerstones, but the traditional theory states they were used to help balance the atlatl in order to create a more powerful throw.

Bannerstone (photo courtesy of National Park Service,

Bannerstone (photo courtesy of National Park Service,

Without a projectile, the atlatl would be no more than a fancy club. With a bit of thread or sinew, the stone point could be hafted onto the dart shaft. These darts varied between 4 and 6 feet long and were made from a variety of tree and shrub species. Some darts missed their mark and were never recovered. Over time the wood decomposed, leaving a solitary piece of stone.

So next time you see some of our local stone points, perhaps it will now evoke the image of a Native American stalking prey with one of man’s most ancient hunting tools: the atlatl.

Adam McCosham, Naturalist, Miami Whitewater Forest