Child-sized Weapons Found in Oregon Were Used for Teaching, Anthropologists Say

Spear-throwing is an acquired skill and the peewee atlatls found in the prehistoric North American site of Par-Tee would have fit the hands of children very nicely

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Atlatl grips
Atlatl gripsCredit: Robert Losey

The discovery of child-sized weapons at a coastal site in Oregon occupied from about 1,900 years ago begs the question of what purpose these atlatls (spear-slinging implements) could have served.

It seems the peewee implements found at Par-Tee were used by children to learn how to hunt properly, suggest Robert J. Losey and Emily Hull of the University of Alberta in the December issue of Antiquity, a journal published by the Cambridge University Press.

“Basically, they scaled down their atlatls so they were more easily usable by small hands. This helped children master the use of these weapons,” Losey posits.

Finding evidence of children in archaeological sites is rare – archaeologists tend to look for palaces and temples, not humdrum homesteads of the hoi polloi, notes archaeologist Rona Avissar Lewis. Another reason is the relative fragility of young bones, the author of the recently published (Hebrew) book “Children in Antiquity” points out.

A third obstacle, says Losey, is that archaeologists don’t necessarily look for evidence of children. Then sometimes an “ordinary” investigation comes up with extraordinary finds, such as the child-sized version of deadly weaponry at Par-Tee.

Map of the study area, Par-Tee, and where items were foundCredit: Emily Hull

Child’s play

Nowadays, investment in kids is the norm. We’re supposed to feed, nurture and school them, not ignore them or exploit their labor. But before the age of modern medicine, child mortality was extremely high, around 70 percent in the ancient Levant, and a prevalent assumption has been that parents protected themselves from grief by keeping young children at an emotional distance, withholding investment until deciding the offspring was likely to survive.

Actually, investment in kids is apparently the human default and where archaeological evidence is available, it seems that children generally had toys and were taught essential skills, according to Avissar Lewis.

The child-sized atlatls found in Par-Tee could have been like latter-day toy stoves and plastic submachine guns – in other words, made for play. It is more likely they were a learning tool, though, used to practice how to spear dinner from a distance.

“I would say they are teaching-learning implements, definitely,” Losey says. “In that particular society, knowing how to use them really well would have been critical … surely they started learning to use them quite young.”

Par-Tee atlatl body and hook fragments. Drilled dot decorative elements can be seen on specimens 6, 11–13, 15 & 17. Credit: Robert Losey

The researchers didn’t find other signals from the past about treatment of kiddies by the inhabitants of Par-Tee – but then, they weren’t looking for any, he says. They focus on ecology and change through time. Even so, the mini-atlatls stood out.

In fact, the researchers found a whole range of sizes. “Some are as long as 50 or 60 centimeters [about 20 to 24 inches], and the grips of them fit my hand perfectly well. Some are half that size and had grips that were definitely not held by adults,” Losey tells Haaretz.

The small ones were suitable for children aged around 8 to 10 years old and couldn’t have fit adult hands, male or female.

Par-Tee was occupied from about 1,900 to 1,200 years ago, but the researchers can’t tell when in that time span the atlatls were used, or if they were used throughout. The quality of the old excavations hadn’t been very good, he explains. But they probably were used throughout, because the technique of slinging one’s spear to enhance its velocity and impact didn’t originate in the Americas.

Over the Bering land bridge

An atlatl, to those of us who don’t hunt large game up close and in person, is also known as a dart-thrower or spear-thrower. Its origins are lost in the dim reaches of prehistoric antiquity, but it may have predated the bow and arrow.

Spears may go back perhaps half a million years, predating the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The earliest known arrowhead is over 60,000 years old and was found in Sibudu Cave, South Africa – though experts think bow-and-arrow technology took a cool 20,000 years to spread.

Decorated atlatls, 12,000 to 17,000 years old, found in Abri de la Madeleine, FranceCredit: Daderot

The earliest known bow is irrelevant. Arrows were made of stone and would survive the apocalypse, or bone, which under the right conditions can also survive forever. Bows on the other hand had to have been made of flexible organic material and would quickly rot away. For what it’s worth, the presently earliest known, undisputable bow was found in a peat bog in Zealand, Denmark and has been dated to about 10,000 years ago.

There is a similar difficulty regarding atlatls. They were made of organic materials, though some were made of relatively hardy bone. The earliest undisputed atlatl found so far dates to a mere 17,500 years ago and was discovered in France. But there can be little doubt that the technique was invented earlier, and we either haven't found the specimens or they all rotted away.

Since early North Americans had the technology – and there is zero reason to think this might be a case of convergent technological innovation – atlatls would have arisen before the migration to North America from Siberia.

Most likely the atlatl was brought over multiple times in multiple forms by the various waves of people migrating to the Americas over the Bering Strait, Losey explains.

“It is widely assumed that the atlatl preceded the bow and arrow,” he tells Haaretz, adding that they’re probably easier to conceptualize, make and use. The bottom line is that atlatls seem to have been used in Europe at least 30,000 to 40,000 years ago and bows and arrows arrived later, even if arrows were being shot at everything that moved in southern Africa tens of thousands of years earlier.

What’s for sure is that some Upper Paleolithic (late Stone Age) sites in Europe have atlatls, Losey says.

Par-Tee atlatl grip fragmentsCredit: Robert Losey
Images of grip fragmentsCredit: Emily Hull

In the Americas, the earliest categorical evidence so far are carved atlatl hooks found in a sinkhole in Little Salt Spring, Florida, that date to about 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. Science tends to assume that even earlier Paleo-Indians used the atlatl technique too.

If the atlatls were used to teach kids, maybe the kids were also taught how to make them? Could the small ones have been manufactured by children for their own use?

In the Middle East, clumsy figurines and pots exhibiting poor workmanship and crude finishing are tentatively interpreted by Avissar Lewis as having been made by children as part of their learning process. But the child-sized atlatls of Oregon exhibit no such mediocrity.

“They are very elegant objects, highly symmetrical, and likely would have taken several weeks to complete. Because they are so complex, my guess is that they were made by adults for children. In other words, the small atlatls were just as well-crafted as the adult-sized atlatls,” Losey observes.

It is true that unlike the gorgeously embellished European atlatls of yore – which had handles carved in the shapes of mammoths, hyenas, bovines and more – the atlatls of Par-Tee bore no zoomorphic sculpting. Some did have decorative dots drilled down the body.

They also had the typical weights hanging at the bottom to add mass, increasing the force of the spear throw, and those weights of Par-Tee were decorated in a sense, Losey says: some may have been ball-shaped, others crescent-shaped. These shapes were nonutilitarian, though they may have had meaning to their creators.

Atlatl spear-thrower carved like mammoth, 12,500 years old, Montastruc, FranceCredit: Johnbod

A 2,000-year-old atlatl found in Washington state had a weight elaborately shaped like a hybrid human-serpent head.

OK. How exactly did the people of Par-Tee use atlatls? To kill animals or other people, or both?

“The atlatls were probably used for hunting and play. We have no evidence that they were used for warfare by adults or children,” Losey answers.

It’s hard to use an atlatl

In case you want to hunt or play with atlatls, this is how you do it, according to several websites devoted to improving your remote killing skills.

An atlatl has a long handle on one end, which you indeed use as a handle. The other end has a hook-type arrangement into which you place the non-business-end of the spear, dart, fork or whatever item of aggression you have chosen.

You hold the atlatl with your throwing hand, balance the spear to parallel the handle with the same hand, face the target, aim it at the target using your eyes, and launch with an overhand motion (akin to throwing a baseball), culminating in a vigorous flick of the wrist. Do not let go of the atlatl handle. Now you too can use an atlatl. Try not to spear yourself in the foot.

In short, using an atlatl to power your projectile is quite the art and it takes a lot of practice before you can hit a tree, let alone a fleeing deer. The Par-Tee’ers probably also ate of the seal, sea lion and birds: bones from all these were found in the midden – a massive accumulation of bones and shells found at the site.

And for dessert: Spear-throwers are called atlatls because that’s what the Aztecs called them when the Spanish arrived and remarked at the innovation, having lost the knowledge that the technique didn’t originate in the Americas but in their very own homeland.

Potential atlatl weights from Par-Tee. Specimen #9 is bone: the others are stoneCredit: Robert Losey
Atlatl hook fragment from Par-TeeCredit: Robert Losey