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.

Replica of an atlatl excavated in White Dog Cave, Arizona. Image from Pettigrew and Garnett (2015).
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).
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Halo Shelter with a black atlatl.
Red Linear anthropomorph at VV1000 wielding an atlatl.
Floating atlatls from the Lewis Canyon Petroglyph site. Black arrows point out the locations of the atlatls.

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.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph from Halo Shelter wielding a red atlatl with fingerloops.
Pecos River Style black atlatl from Mystic Shelter with fingerloops.
Atlatl fragment recovered from Ceremonial Cave (near El Paso, Texas) with fiber fingerloops. Image courtesy
Bar: short, perpendicular line located near the proximal end (handle) of the atlatl.
Red Linear anthropomorph from VV1000. The black arrows point out the attributes of the atlatl.
Replica atlatl from Alred Shelter, Arkansas. Image from Pettigrew (2011).
Weight: one protrusion around the mid-shaft of the atlatl.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Fate Bell with a weighted atlatl.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph from Parida Cave wielding a weighted atlatl.
A weighted atlatl recovered from Baylor Rockshelter in west Texas. Image from Fenega Franklin and Joe Ben Wheat (1940).
Notched: multiple protrusions around the mid-shaft of the atlatl.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Panther Cave with a notched atlatl.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Big Satan Shelter with a notched atlatl.
Atlatl with notches recovered from the Lower Pecos. Atlatl pictured in Shafer (1986, 2013), and is in the Witte Museum.
Spur: short line that intersects the atlatl at the distal end.
Atlatl from Lewis Canyon Petroglyph site.
Red Linear anthropomorph from VV1000 wielding an atlatl with a spur.
Types of atlatl spurs described by Dickson (1985).
Simple: atlatl represented as just a straight line with no additional attributes.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Panther Cave wielding a simple, or unmodified, atlatl.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Cedar Springs wielding a simple atlatl.
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!
Red Linear anthropomorph from Mystic Shelter in real-color (left) and DStretch YBK enhancement (right). Black arrows point out the different atlatl attributes.
YBK enhancement of a Pecos River Style anthropomorph from Black Cave Annex. Black arrows point out the different atlatl attributes.

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.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Halo Shelter wielding a loaded atlatl in its right hand.
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Rattlesnake Canyon wielding a loaded atlatl in its left hand.
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!
Pecos River Style anthropomorph at Cedar Springs wielding two loaded atlatls.
A Pecos River Style "floating arm" at Hibiscus Shelter wielding a simple atlatl and loaded dart.
An "anthropomorphized" Pecos River Style atlatl and loaded dart from Eagle Cave. In this example, the floating arm is both an arm and an atlatl (C), and there is a long spear loaded into the arm (B & D). The spear in this example is very elaborate, and changes from a solid red line to black and red dots (D).
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.
A Red Linear anthropomorph in the typical split-leg stance with the arms depicted in profile. The figure's atlatl is very elaborate.
A procession of Red Linear figures. Notice how only the first figure in line is wielding an atlatl (black arrow). Bottom image enhanced with DStrech CRGB color channel.
This Red Linear scene from Fate Bell is possibly depicting warfare or combat. Notice how most of the figures are wielding atlatls (black arrows), and the middle arrow points to what may be a loaded atlatl. Bottom image enhanced with DStretch LDS color channel.
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.”
Although not as common as "floating" atlatls, some atlatls at the Lewis Canyon Petroglyph site are wielded by anthropomorphic figures. Notice the similarities between this figure and the Red Linear style figures shown above.
Some of the atlatls depicted at Lewis Canyon have excessively large atlatl weights.
This floating atlatl at Lewis Canyon has an elongated atlatl weight rather than a circular weight.

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.
An Olmec effigy atlatl carved from stone (from Taube 2004:Plate 26). Artifacts like this would not have been functional, and the exaggerated atlatl attributes in Lower Pecos rock art may be painted atlatl effigies.
An Aztec atlatl in the British Museum with gold leaf and shell fingerloops. Image from the British Museum.
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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