Use of the atlatl in prehistoric hunting in Wyoming.

By Russell Richard

In Wyoming 11,000 yrs of projectile points provide the best evidence for spear-thrower use. The earliest of these, the Clovis culture, is best known in Wyoming from the Colby site near Worland, WY. The site yielded mammoth bone dates of 11,200 and 10, 900 years BP from the 1973-78 excavations conducted by the legendary Dr. George Frison (Frison and Todd 1986). Seven mammoth are represented at the site along with the remains of horse, camel, bison, pronghorn, jackrabbit, and possibly musk ox. Intermixed within the two larger bone piles were three Clovis projectile points which are believed to represent more than one hunt conducted at the site. The exact method of the delivery of the Clovis point in hunting is unknown but Frison first experimented with thrusting spears on an elephant in 1984 (Frison 1989:775) and then during an elephant culling operation in Zimbabwe in 1985 he demonstrated the capabilities of the Clovis point when propelled by a spearthrower (Frison 1989). Frison was primarily interested in knowing if a Clovis hunter could “regularly and predictably inflict lethal wounds” on mammoth-size animals using the atlatl (Frison 1989:773). He made multiple throws at both mature and juvenile elephants from distances of 15-20 m and inflicted several lethal wounds using Clovis points hafted to a foreshaft and inset into primarily chokecherry mainshafts. One notable cast was made at a mature female which had been shot by the government hunters and left for dead. When Frison approached the animal she regained her feet and allowed him the opportunity for a broadside throw at the rib cage. The Clovis-tipped dart passed through a portion of the front quarter and penetrated the lung cavity, “producing a potentially lethal wound. At this point, the animal dropped on all fours.” (Frison 1989:775) Frison concluded that Clovis points propelled by the atlatl could deliver “crippling and/or lethal wounds” (Frison 1989:782) to African elephants and after observing herd behavior was able to devise an effective and low-risk strategy for procuring the animals using two or more hunters.

The direct evidence of prehistoric atlatls in Wyoming is scanty but the 10,000 yr old Hell Gap bison bone bed at the Agate Basin site produced an elk antler tine tip believed to be atlatl spur (Frison and Craig 1982:164). The tip was conjectured to have protruded through a hole in the end of a thrower, a method attested to by Frison following his experiments using a similarly designed atlatl (Frison 2004:109). Numerous projectile point types/cultures followed Clovis on the High Plains and generally indicate a decreased point size through time as the Ice Age megafauna became smaller or in the case of mammoth, disappeared entirely (Frison 1991).  Although the size of the projectile points decreased, the efficacy of the weaponry is believed to have remained constant, perhaps largely due to the reliable delivery method utilizing the spearthrower. Several mass-kills of predominately bison have been documented in Wyoming and encompass all the span of human occupation (Frison 1991). These communal hunts were generally accomplished by first trapping the animals in a natural feature then darting them from the periphery. By contrast, numerous single animal kills are also evident in the archaeological record that probably indicate only one or two hunters accomplished the hunting. In particular, the ability to consistently feed the family with the fleetest and wariest of prey, the pronghorn, is amply demonstrated by the abundance of such sites in Wyoming and is also evidence of the efficacy of the weapon on all prey sizes and environments.

Approximately 30+ atlatl weights are known from Wyoming (Frison 1991; D. Walker, OWSA: personal communication 2011) and generally correspond to most of the styles/types known throughout the west/southwest and even a couple of types known from sites located in the Mississippi region.  Anomolous artifacts from beyond the state are often discovered but definitive research of possible trade/contact with other far-flung cultures as demonstrated by atlatl weights has not yet been undertaken in Wyoming.

Two caves in the Big Horn Mountains provide the clearest examples of spearthrower technology in Wyoming. During a hunting trip in 1952 the 26 year-old George Frison discovered a cave on the western slope of the 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.

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 2004:31).

The cave site, Spring Creek, and another nearby cave on Daughtery Creek, were ultimately excavated and reported by Dr. Frison. Spring Creek cave yielded a radiocarbon date of 1,725+200 years BP and contained a large and varied Late Prehistoric assemblage indicating numerous tasks performed during a probable summer occupation (Frison 1965). The assemblage included one distal and four proximal atlatl fragments manufactured from skunkbrush, one of which was a nearly complete specimen. The atlatls have a carved spur, a flat, narrow cross-section and feature lugs on the distal portion which may have anchored finger loops. The assemblage also contained nine distal willow dart shaft fragments (all are socketed, most are painted with ochre, and two retain sinew binding), 16 proximal fragments (all are socketed, some are painted with ochre, some are bound with sinew, and one was broken and repaired), and 13 nocked & tapered foreshafts (these included six tenon discards, two retain projectile points bound with sinew and coated with ochre, and one bunt). Two pieces of ground steatite indicate use as weights and the best-preserved atlatl retains a glue spot for a weight. Feather debris in the assemblage was probably related to dart fletching. The corner-notched projectile points typify the generally smaller yet highly efficient Late Prehistoric point style which sufficed to bring down both deer and buffalo in the region and the use of bunts probably indicates small game and birds were being taken with the atlatl as well. 

Daughtery Creek cave contained two components consisting of a buried Late Prehistoric Period occupation and a surface component thought to be a probable Crow occupation (Frison 1968). No dating of the components was possible but the cave contained a nearly identical varied and extensive assemblage to that found at Spring Creek. This occupation also probably occurred in the late spring or summer. Three atlatl fragments of the same type as those found at Spring Creek were found in the cave, along with six foreshafts, five bunts, two sharpened wood points, and 13 proximal and five distal dart fragments. Atlatl manufacturing techniques were indicated by the presence of prepared blanks. The method consisted of splitting a branch on two sides to create a thin center section. The artifact assemblage contained a shaped steatite atlatl weight and a fossil belemnite also believed to have been a weight.  The atlatl and dart design found in these two caves share similarities to Basketmaker types in AZ, NV, NM, OK and TX.  These two sites indicate the atlatl was a viable and reliable weapon but one aspect remains the same now as it was then, use requires periodic repair, refinement, and upgrading.

The Besant were the last spearthrower culture on the high plains and roamed the the area roughly 2,000-1,200 years BP.  It is probable they met the Avonlea bow people coming down from the north beginning around 1,500 years BP.  The Besant were accomplished bison hunters utilizing a corral/pound strategy who ranged into Wyoming from Woodland cultures located in the more densely sited east. Bison were driven into constructed impounds and then dispatched by atlatl darts and spears. Two sites in Wyoming, Ruby (Frison 1971) and Muddy Creek (Frison 1991) best serve to illustrate the communal and large-scale nature of their sophisticated hunting methods. 

In summary, prehistoric humans successfully adapted to changing environments and prey by utilizing a variety of subsistence strategies but consistently throughout the 11,000 years of continual occupation in Wyoming the ability to safely and reliably bring down both large and small game animals rested on their proficient use of the atlatl. The efficacy of the weapon is demonstrated not only by the obvious survival of the human populations in the harsh Wyoming environment for 10,000+ years but also by the refinements which succeeding generations implemented (i.e., point sizes) within the weapon system without needing to alter the basic design.

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)

1971    The Buffalo Pound in North-Western Plains Prehistory: Site 48CA302, Wyoming. American Antiquity 36:77-91.

1989   Experimental use of Clovis weaponry. American Antiquity 54(4):766-784.

1991    Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. 2nd ed. New York: Academic Press.

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

Frison, George C. and Carolyn Craig

1982   Bone, antler, and ivory artifacts and manufacture technology. In The Agate Basin Site: a record of the Paleoindian occupation of the Northwestern high Plains, edited by G. C. Frison and D. J. Stanford, pp. 161-173. Academic Press, New York.

Frison, George C. and Lawrence C. Todd

1986    The Colby Mammoth Site: Taphonomy and Archaeology of a Clovis Kill in Northern Wyoming. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Harrington, M.R.

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