Historic Atlatls of Wyoming

Dr. George C. Frison

(Click on photos for larger view.)

The historical use of the atlatl in Wyoming is believed to have begun in the 1950’s with George Frison. During a hunting trip in 1952 the 26 year-old George Frison discovered a cave on the western slope of the Big Horn Mountains and in 1953 he returned to investigate the find. Within the cave he found several pieces of unknown wooden implements which were subsequently identified as fragments of an atlatl and darts by the famed Dr. William Mulloy at the University of Wyoming .

Artifacts from Spring Creek Cave housed at the Washakie County Museum, Worland, Wyoming.

In his book, Survival by hunting; prehistoric human predators and animal prey, Dr. Frison stated:

“At the time, I knew very little about atlatls and darts, but I was able to obtain copies of C.B. Cosgrove’s report (1947) on similar perishable materials from caves on the Upper Gila and Hueco areas of New Mexico and Texas as well as M. R. Wormington’s report (1933) on perishable dart shafts from Gypsum Cave near Las Vegas, Nevada. Using their descriptions and the parts from the cave in the Big Horn Mountains, I was able to make replicas of the weapons; over a period of about three years, I managed to gain enough proficiency to hunt rabbits and prairie dogs. I preferred the bow and arrow, which I found provided greater accuracy, over the atlatl and dart.” (Frison 2004, p. 31).

The cave site, Spring Creek, and another nearby cave on Daughtery Creek, were ultimately excavated and reported by Dr. Frison (Frison 1965, 1968) . Both caves revealed similar Late Archaic assemblages of atlatls and darts.  Despite his earlier preference for the bow, Dr. Frison continued experimenting with the atlatl during his career as Wyoming State Archaeologist and eventually conducted the monumental experimental use of an atlatl on culled elephants in Zimbabwe in 1985 (Frison 1989).

Dr. George Frison and his elephant-hunting gear.

In 2011 this researcher was delighted to see an authentic George Frison replica atlatl provided by the Assistant Wyoming State Archaeologist, Dr. Danny Walker. This atlatl is currently undated but it unfortunately doesn’t appear to be the one shown in the preceding undated photo.

Frison replica atlatl.

 

Frison replica atlatl, proximal end.

 

Frison replica atlatl, distal end.

Detail from undated Frison photograph.

In addition to his own use of the atlatl, Dr. Frison inspired others to replicate and use the long-neglected weapon. One such person was apparently his uncle, Robert E. Frison.  An atlatl fashioned by him was revealed to this researcher in 2011 by Dr. Marcel Kornfeld of UW/Frison Institute. The inscription on the underside of the distal end of the atlatl reads “Made by R.E. Frison Buffalo, Wyo 12/1/61”. The circular hole within the inscription was probably made by a hanger used to display the atlatl. No other details were known about the use of this atlatl but it easy to imagine George and Robert Frison as the first atlatl wielding hunters to reappear in Wyoming since the Besant peoples slew their last bison some 1,500+ years in the past.

R. E. Frison atlatl, top view.

R. E. Frison atlatl, bottom view.

 

R. E. Frison atlatl, distal end.

Another person with a direct connection to Dr. Frison’s atlatl years is Roderick (Rod) Laird. Rod has made a lasting impact upon historical atlatl use not only in Wyoming but in the world.  His association with Dr. Frison began with his co-discovery (along with wife Pat and friends, Dave and Jamie Egolf) of the 10,000 year old Casper Site in 1971. Excavations at the site were begun by Dr. Frison the day after discovery (Laird and Gilman 1992; Frison 1974).  There and then amongst the detritus left by those long ago Hell Gap hunters occurred a meeting of two modern Wyoming atlatlists who were each to play pivotal roles in the atlatl renaissance that was to follow.  Rod used his experience at the Casper Site to fashion a detailed diorama for the Saratoga Museum that depicted atlatlists hurling their darts into ancient bison trapped in the parabolic dunes (Laird 2011).  In 1980 Rod returned to the classroom  in Saratoga and provided the vital spark which fanned into the flame the modern sporting use of the atlatl. (Author’s note: Although earlier attempts were made to generate sporting interest, specifically the 1931 Popular Mechanics and 1935 Popular Science Monthly articles, no discernible outcome can be attributed to the effort. See Unknown 1931 and Rutter 1935 ) Rod’s atlatl adventure was undertaken as part of a sixth-grade social studies project that culminated in the first organized atlatl event in 1981 (Laird 1984).  This humble beginning blossomed into a mammoth annual meeting of numerous noted archaeologists (among whom was Dr. Frison) and enthusiastic aficionados of the atlatl. A more complete overview of the historical placement of Rod and his students will be forthcoming in a future page on this website, suffice to say in this brief mention that each atlatl crafted by Rod and his students had an impact upon the modern use of atlatls in Wyoming and beyond.

Rod Laird, photographed in 2011.

Other notable atlatls seen in Wyoming:

Dr. Marcel Kornfeld

Dr. Marcel Kornfeld and his 25 year old atlatl and dart, photographed at Hell Gap, Wyoming in 2011. He is also holding the R.E. Frison atlatl and a palm atlatl in his left hand.

Wayne Burrows

 

Copper atlatl.

Wayne Burrows, photographed at Thermopolis, Wyoming in 2009, holding his one-of-a -kind atlatl manufactured from 1/2” copper tubing. He is an uncle of the author.

Sagebrush atlatl.

Sagebrush atlatl with sheep horn spur made by the author in 1995 from materials gathered near Lost Cabin, Wyoming. This atlatl has been in continuous use for 17 years without fail and was first used in competition to win the men’s division at the World Atlatl Open in 1996. Subsequent to that, it has been used at ten locations in Europe and 15 states in the U.S.

 

Dr. Steve Cassell

Dr. Steve Cassell, holding a Tate Enterprises atlatl, ca. 1985, photographed at Hell Gap, Wyoming in 2011. This atlatl was manufactured in Colorado by Bill Tate, the first commercial atlatl salesman, and purchased by Dr. Cassell at one of the early Colorado Archaeological Society throws.

Mammoth Hunter atlatl.

 

Mammoth Hunter atlatl, proximal end.

Mammoth Hunter atlatl, reverse proximal end.

Mammoth Hunter atlatl, bottom view.

This is the first version of the BPS Engineering atlatl, the Mammoth Hunter, ca. Late 1980’s. This atlatl was manufactured in Montana by Robert (Atlatl Bob) Perkins and was purchased by Dr. Danny Walker at the World Atlatl Open held at Fort Caspar, Wyoming.

Additional atlatls will be depicted as they become available.

Author: Russell Richard

Created: January 12, 2012

 

References

 

  • Cosgrove, C.B.

1947  Caves of the Upper Gila and Hueco Areas in New Mexico and Texas. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology        and Ethnology 24(2). Harvard University, Cambridge.

  • Frison, George C.

             1965  Spring Creek Cave, Wyoming. American Antiquity 31(1):81-94.

             1968  Daughtery Creek Cave, Wyoming. Plains Anthropologist 13 (42)

             1974 The Casper Site: A Hell Gap Bison Kill On the High Plains. New York: Academic Press

             1989  Experimental Use of Clovis Weaponry and Tools on African Elephants. American Antiquity 54(4):766-784.

            2004 Survival by hunting: prehistoric human predators and animal prey. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Harrington, M.R.

1933  Gypsum Cave, Nevada. Southwest Museum Papers 8. Los Angeles

  • Laird, Roderick

           1984 How to Make and Use the Atlatl: Ancient Weapon of the Ice Age Hunters.Saratoga Museum Papers 1. Saratoga Historical and Cultural   Association Atlatl Press, Saratoga.

           2011  The Atlatl Book : Everything you’ve always wondered about the weapon of the ice age hunters and Aztec warriors. Printed in   Casper, WY.

  • Laird, Roderick and John Gilman

1992  Window in time : the story of the discovery of the Casper site. Saratoga Museum Papers 2. Saratoga Historical and Cultural Association Atlatl Press, Saratoga.  

  • Rutter, Clark H.

            1935 Target Practice With Mayan Throwing Sticks.Popular Science Monthly, Vol.127, No. 2

  • Unknown

            1931 Dart Throwing with an Atlatl.Popular Mechanics, Vol.56, No. 4.

 

Comments
  • Nathan:

    Is the Roderick Laird book (The Atlatl Book: Everything you’ve always wondered about the weapon of the ice age hunters and Aztec warriors) available for sale? I would like to add it to my collection but I cannot locate a copy online. Ironically, I just purchased “Survival by Hunting” the other day. Thanks for your help!