America’s Oldest Hunting Weapon

Field & Stream
July, 1965

“A craggy-faced man with straggling hair and a loincloth of camelskin faced the mammoth sqarely. The big bull trumpeted and raised his trunk above his double-curved tusks. The hunter drew back his arm. He held a stone-pointed lance with the butt end against the hooked tip of his throwing stick. As the tusks of the mammoth loomed over his head the hunter, leaning his whole weight into the throw, launched the javelin into the chest of the charging animal.

While the man jumped and rolled into the brush to escape the bull’s forefeet two other hunters closed in from the side. Two lances from their throwing sticks thudded into the thin skin of the mammoth just behind his foreleg. Blood spurted from around the wooden shafts. At least one of the javelins had pierced the lungs.

The mammoth stopped trying to find the first hunter, who was crouched in the bushes along the riverbank. The bull reached back to his flank and, with the two wide lips at the end of his trunk, pulled out one of the stinging spears. During this respite the two hunters again fitted javelins to their throwing sticks and plunged another pair of shafts into the bull’s ribs.

The mammoth whirled, and the two men, with quick running steps, jumped behind him so that he couldn’t see them. Already the staggering animal was blowing blood from his trunk. Only then did the cow mammoth charge.

As before, one of the hunters provoked the attack while his two companions closed in from the side to plunge javelins into the lethal area behind the cow’s foreleg. At the smell of blood the cow mammoth trumpeted and galloped around the stricken bull, which was now swaying from side to side. Three calves from the herd added to the din with trumpeting and squeals as they milled about uncertainly. One of the hunters raised his hand above the brush and signaled violently.

A naked woman, who had been cowering in the cover along the bank, ran forward carrying a bundle of extra lances. One of the men took the spears from her, tossed a pair to each of his companions, and fitted a shaft to his own spear thrower. As the bull collapsed on his side, gasping and bubbling through his trunk, the three men methodically attacked the young mammoths. When the five animals finally fell, the three calves lay huddled together, with the bull and the cow less than a spear’s throw away.

This episode of daring hunters using a new weapon took place in North America 11,000 years ago, during the last of the ice age. The five mammoth skeletons were found close to the bank of what had been an ice-age river near the town of Clovis, New Mexico. In the ribs were the stone points of the lances that had killed them. Also among the bones were flint knives with which the victorious hunters had cut through he thick skin and butchered the carcasses. The powerful weapon that the Clovis hunters had used to plunge their lances through the thick elephant hide and kill five mammoths in one group was the spear thrower.”

“The advantages of a javelin launched with a spear thrower are so great that many Americans used it up to the time of Columbus and later. By the time Cortes, the Spanish general, attacked Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, the bow and arrow was common throughout America. However, the Aztecs fought with arrows tipped with obsidian points, which were generally ineffectual against the well-armed Spaniards riding on armored horses. To penetrate Spanish armor the Aztec warriors used a spear thrower. The called the device an atlatl. With it a Mexican warrior could thrust a lance right through the body of an armored horse or the man who sat on it.

At the end of the ice age most of the large animals in America became extinct. The mammoths, horses, camels, straight-horned bison, and other animals typical of the times died out or were killed off by men using spear throwers. There is considerable evidence that men aided in or caused the extinction of the ice-age animals. If this is true, the spear thrower was as lethal a weapon in the hands of these early destroyers as the guns used by modern hunters.

With the passing of the ice age, the spear thrower was not abandoned. At its best when used against heavy-bodied animals at close range, the weapon is also excellent against smaller, more fleet-footed game at greater distances. The main difficulty is accuracy. A javelin with a weighty point and a heavy foreshaft for deep penetration will not have great range. A lighter dart tends to waver because the main impetus is the thrust at the butt from the hook of the spear thrower. However, for 25,000 years this was the only weapon that American hunters knew and used.”

“There is evidence all over America that the bow and arrow, when it finally became known, was first used for war. The spear thrower continued as the major hunting weapon. A man is likely to be seen at greater ranges and to present a fleeting and difficult target. The quick-shooting bow with which a skillful archer may shoot three arrows before the first has hit its mark is a natural weapon for war.”

“If the modern sportsman wishes to indulge his sporting instincts to the full, he can easily construct a spear thrower along atlatl lines. It will be difficult to stalk a game animal close enough to make a successful cast. The movement of the arm as the hunter uses the spear thrower will usually start the animal running and make the mark more difficult to hit. But any modern huntsman, when he first tries out this ancient weapon, will be amazed at what leverage does to a throw. At close range an atlatl dart can be thrust clear through a two-inch plank – good penetration for a modern bullet. Perhaps with such a demonstration game commissioners in various states might be persuaded to include America’s oldest hunting weapon along with the bow as a legal hunting weapon.”