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- What’s the Point? Atlatl Loops, the Rarest o...
This is the next post in a series called “What’s the Point?” In this series, Allen Denoyer and other stone tool experts explore various aspects of technologies and traditions.
(March 30, 2023)—Hunters used atlatls for thousands of years all over the world. The atlatl is a weapon system people used before the innovation of the bow-and-arrow system.
An atlatl is basically a stick you hold in one hand to throw a spear, also known as a dart. It’s an extension of your arm that makes your arm twice as long—and quadruples the amount of force you can put behind a dart. In engineering terms, it’s a simple lever.
In my experience, most atlatls had leather loops on the handles. These loops helped the thrower hold the atlatl in their hand.
Today, I want to talk about stone atlatl loops—among the rarest artifact types in the Southwest and northwest Mexico. I’m aware of only two stone atlatl loops found in the Tucson Basin.
Stone atlatl loops worked the same way as the leather loops—to secure the atlatl in the hunter’s hand. We know of two distinct stone loop styles: one with holes drilled through the rounded ends, and one with notched ends (the “Sonoran style”) with two small holes drilled below the center of the notches.
The atlatl loops recovered in this region date to the Early Agricultural period, specifically the Cienega phase (800 BCE–850 CE). This was when the bow and arrow were beginning to replace atlatl technology. Only one of the two found in the Tucson Basin comes from a dated context, a Cienega phase pithouse. The second is held by a private individual, and I have not yet had a chance to investigate where it was found. This example is the notched Sonoran style. All known examples from this Southwest/Northwest region are of green serpentine or steatite (soapstone).
Back to the loop found at the Cienega phase pithouse. We found it while excavating at the site of Los Pozos in the Santa Cruz River floodplain. Archaeologist Alan Ferg had predicted that an atlatl loop would someday be found in an Early Agricultural period site. He’d seen examples from sites in Mexico. (Interestingly, in southern Mexico, people were still making atlatl loops when the Spaniards arrived. The highest density of known loops is from the north and west regions of Mesoamerica. Many of these are made of shell. Although the examples from the Tucson Basin are much older than the known Mesoamerican atlatl loops, older examples may still be resting in Mesoamerican sites or collections.)
Check out this image of projectile points found during the most recent excavations at Los Pozos. What I want you to notice here is the varying sizes of the points.
The dart points in the bottom row are San Pedro points that hunters used with atlatls. The other points are arrow points that hunters used with bows. Specifically, the points at the upper right are known as Cienega Stemmed points, and they represent the first evidence that bow-and-arrow technology arrived here about 2,000 years ago.
So, it’s safe to say that people were using atlatl loops 2,000 years ago, but it’s hard to say how long hunters had been using them before that!
Switching gears, let’s consider why people made these loops out of stone. I still don’t have a good answer. Their rarity leads me to think that they were more of a status symbol than a functional item. If they’d been fairly common, we should find them in Early Agricultural sites more often (unlike atlatls, which only survive in dry cave and rock shelter conditions).
And, in my experience, the stone loops are easy to break!
I made three sets of them a few years back using modern tools. One I made of Wyoming jade is still on one of my atlatls.
I’ve decided to make some stone loops completely with stone tools to get an idea of what that entailed and the effort toolmakers put in. Stay tuned!
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3 thoughts on “What’s the Point? Atlatl Loops, the Rarest of the Rare”
Exciting! I work mostly in the Andes and was unaware of these. Few lithics collections have been analyzed from the area. Will be looking for them now.
thanks alwasy like to see experimental archaeology, have you put this on youtube?
Great! I have been wondering about the atlatl, timing of their appearance, never gave a thought to a stone loop! Thank you, more on atlatls please:)