Tiny versions of ancient spear-throwing weapons were likely used to train children

Archeologist Robert Losey holds a fragment of a full-sized atlatl handle (left) and a smaller version likely used to train children to use the spear-throwing weapon from a very early age. (Photo courtesy Robert Losey)

Archeologist Robert Losey holds a fragment of a full-sized atlatl handle (left) and a smaller version likely used to train children to use the spear-throwing weapon from a very early age. (Photo courtesy Robert Losey)

New archeological evidence suggests ancient Indigenous children of the Pacific Northwest were likely trained to hunt using small, scaled-down weapons.

University of Alberta anthropologist Robert Losey examined a number of atlatls—a weapon used for throwing spears—at Par-Tee, a site on the northern Oregon coast that was home to Chinookan and Salish-speaking populations between about 100 and 800 AD.

“The largest of the atlatls fit very comfortably in my hand, which would suggest they were made for adults,” said Losey. “But some were a little less than half that size, something that maybe an eight- to 10-year old child would use.”

Some 7,000 tools were found at Par-Tee in the 1960s and ’70s and sent to the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But until recently, very few of them had been analyzed, said Losey, whose study appeared in the journal Antiquity in December.

“Historically, or even in more recent periods, you see other miniaturized or scaled-down equipment used by the First Nations in this area—particularly bows and arrows, which eventually replaced atlatls,” he said.

Losey said the atlatl was difficult to use and would have required extensive experience to master. The smaller weapons allowed children to practise from a very early age, probably pre-adolescence, building up skills and gradually contributing to hunting.

By the time they reached adulthood, he said, they would have been “super adept” at using the atlatl, which was “critical to survival.

“Proficient atlatl users probably would have had greater success in hunting than those less skilled, resulting in dietary and social advantages for themselves and their community. Such individuals might also be more successful in warfare and self-defence.”

Losey described the atlatl as “somewhat like the plastic tool used today to throw tennis balls for your dog, allowing you to throw a spear far more rapidly and at a greater distance, basically with more force.”

He said the miniature weapons functioned much like scaled-down sports equipment works today.

“Tennis is probably the closest kind of analog. If you have an eight-year-old trying to learn to play tennis using an adult racket, it just doesn’t fit with their body size and strength. The smaller scale gives them a higher rate of success.”

Childhood learning has long eluded archeologists because it tends to leave “little or no discernible material traces,” said Losey. The topic cries out for more research.

“Many regions of the world still lack any literature on the archeology of childhood and learning, and the northwest coast of North America is no exception.

“Archeological research on enskilment continues to be remarkably rare, and this is a missed opportunity. High levels of skill were required for an array of past practices, and a better understanding of how these skills emerged and were acquired will surely prove insightful on a wide range of social issues.”

/University of Alberta Release. View in full here.