Atlatls in Lower Pecos Rock Art
By Charles Koenig
One of humanity’s oldest weapon systems is the atlatl, or spear thrower. The atlatl functions as a lever to throw a dart (or spear) with greater speed, distance, and accuracy than a hand-thrown spear. Atlatls were used by humans as early as 20,000 ago, and in the Lower Pecos the atlatl was used until being replaced by the bow and arrow around 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists have even recovered fragments of atlatls from Lower Pecos rockshelters.
Atlatls are depicted in rock art around the world, and within Lower Pecos rock art atlatls are one of the most recognizable symbols. Atlatls occur in three main Lower Pecos rock art styles: Pecos River Style (PRS), Red Linear Style (RLS), and the Serpentine petroglyphs at Lewis Canyon. Within PRS and RLS, atlatls are generally painted in association with anthropomorphic (human-like) figures, and atlatls at Lewis Canyon are more frequently depicted as “floating” without any associated anthropomorphic figures (although there are some exceptions).
Attributes of Atlatls in Lower Pecos Rock Art
Because atlatls are so common, when Shumla conducts full figure documentation at a rock art site we record 5 different atlatl attributes: weight, fingerloop, bar, notched, and spur. An atlatl without any type of additional attributes is considered “simple.” Each of these attributes has direct corollaries with atlatls that have been recovered archaeology. We define these attributes as:
Fingerloops: one or two loops near the proximal end (handle) of the atlatl.
Bar: short, perpendicular line located near the proximal end (handle) of the atlatl.
Weight: one protrusion around the mid-shaft of the atlatl.
Notched: multiple protrusions around the mid-shaft of the atlatl.
Spur: short line that intersects the atlatl at the distal end.
Simple: atlatl represented as just a straight line with no additional attributes.
As you can see from the photographs, there is variation in how each of these attributes are depicted, and thus far we have not documented any atlalts in Lower Pecos rock art with attributes that fall outside of the five attributes we have defined. However, these different atlatl attributes can be combined on a single atlatl—which means there are dozens of possible atlatl configurations!
Variation of Atlatls by Rock Art Style
Although the atlatls within the different styles all can be described using the same attributes, there are distinct differences in their depictions. Within Pecos River Style (PRS) the atlatls appear to be painted in cross-section, and most have darts “loaded” onto the atlatls. We also can apply handedness (right or left handed) in PRS figures based on which arm is holding the atlatl.
In general a single anthropomorph will only have one atlatl, but we have examples of figures wielding multiple atlatls. Further, PRS artists also painted atlatls in very unique contexts, including floating arms wielding atlatls and arms that are painted representing atlatls!
Red Linear figures are more commonly painted in profile, the atlatls are depicted in a front view, and very few atlatls have “loaded” darts. It is also difficult to apply handedness because we cannot be certain of which arm is which when the figures are painted in profile.
The Serpentine Style petroglyphs at Lewis Canyon are depicted very similarly to the Red Linear atlatls. Many of these have very, VERY large atlatl weights. There are some anthropomorphic figures wielding atlatls at Lewis Canyon, but the vast majority of atlatls are “floating.”
Atlatl Function vs. Form in LPC Rock Art
Based on the similarities between atlatls depicted in the rock art and those that have been recovered by archaeologists, we can presume that some representations depict functional atlatls. However, others are very stylized (like the atlatl from Lewis Canyon with the very large atlatl weight) and likely do not represent functional atlatls (physically capable of throwing a dart). These “non-functioning” (or effigy) atlatls could be depictions of ceremonial and/or ritual artifacts, or the exaggerated features could be symbols representing physically small attributes.
With the Alexandria Project we will continue to document the variation of atlatls within Lower Pecos rock art, and with more research into the variation we will be able to develop hypotheses explaining what why certain attributes are painted in such unique ways. Stay tuned for more atlatl updates!
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