Museum receives ancient spearthrowers


During the December season of gift-giving the vertebrate paleontology collection at the Florida Museum in Gainesville received contributions from two of its finest amateur friends, Eric Taylor and John Claytor. Each of these merry gentlemen provided a piece of fossil deer antler, collected under Florida's fossil vertebrate permit system, from the bottom of the Santa Fe River. As each of them suspected, however, these are no ordinary deer antlers, for they had been modified as atlatl hooks.

The word atlatl is appropriated from the Nahuatl (or Aztec) word for a spearthrower. (some purists argue that the word is misappropriated, since different kinds of spearthrowers appear in different hunting cultures around the world.) A common type of atlatl consists of a stout piece of wood about the length of a human forearm with a hook near one end (Figure 1). This device fits into the butt of a spear andhelps hurl it. Acting as an extra segment of the human arm, the atlatl generates forces ten times greater than the unaided human arm (Figure 2). A fastball pitcher can throw a hardball at about 100 miles per hour by snapping the wrist, the elbow and the shoulderjoint in a sequence of smoothly accelerating motions along a single trajectory. By tying a sesta (basket) onto his Wrist, and thus adding another segment to his forearm, a Jai Alai player can propel the pelota at more than 150 miles per hour. An atlatl similarly adds another segment to the arm of a spearthrowing hunter. The hook at the distal end f the atlatlis also valuable in providing a nice lodgement for the spear base as it is propelled from its launchpad. In the hands of an experienced hurler, the extra force delivered with an atlatl sacrifices no accuracy. On the other hand, an atlatl hurler probably required at least the same amount of practice and degree of proficiency as a professional baseball pitcher does in our culture.

In various ancient cultures, going back into the Paleolithic in Eurasia, the hook was fashioned separately and then attached to (lodged in) the longer piece, making a compound atlatl. In each of the new examples from the Santa Fe River, the hook made from deer antler (Figure 3) is between eight and nine centimeters long (under four inches) and is elegantly modified from a piece of Odocoileus virginian (white-tail deer) antler. Another antler atlatl in a private collection from the Aucilla River is said to be much longer with a socket at the front end. In each of the Santa Fe River antlers the upper surface leading back to the hook is flattened and polished, presumably from the action of many launched spears. The proximal end of each piece (opposite end from the hook) appears to have been snapped off, and suggests that the torque of hurling spears eventually strained this portion of an atlatl hook.

There is no exact context to these finds, and that is the scientific problem with most of the wonderful discoveries from the Santa Fe river. Each specimen was found on the river bottom among the sand, silt and other elastic sediments. One bone is tan in one case and jet black in the other. Each is typical of late Pleistocene bones from this river, but there is no solid evidence proving that these atlatl hooks are of late Pleistocene age. If they were that ancient, they would provide the first clear instance of Paleoindian atlatls in the New World. In the Old World, spearthrowers occur as early as the upper Paleolithic. Today they play an essential role in the hunting technology of male Australian Aboriginals (where they consist of very broad wooden pieces called a Woomera). Two years ago in Atherton (northeastern Australia) I video-recorded an old man using a woomera to throw a bamboo spear (tipped with stone) halfway through a four-inch wooden post at about 50 yards.

There is one hope for determining whether these antler atlatls from Florida rivers might be Paleoindian spearthrowers. The Museum has now loaned the tan-colored specimen to the leading bone-dating laboratory, run by Dr. Thomas Stafford at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There he has begun to extract a small sample of bone protein (collagen) from the Santa Fe atlatl hook. If there is enough he will analyze the several component amino acids and date each amino acid separately by the tandem accelerator mass spectrometer (TAMS) method. This is an expensive effort, but the Museum and Dr. Stafford are pleased to try because the potential interest in obtaining a date from this implement is so great. Tune in again next year for a possible date.

Meanwhile, these new finds add an exciting new kind of cultural artifact to the collections of the Florida Museum. We congratulate Eric Taylor and John Claytor on their outstanding discoveries. We are sending them each a beautiful replica produced by Florida Museum of Natural History preparator Russ McCarty's lab, along with an accession certificate. We know that they share our pride in preserving this valuable heritage for Floridians and their visitors.