For the earliest people living in Alberta at the end of the Pleistocene Era (approximately 11,700 BCE), survival depended on the success of the hunt. Prehistoric people shared the land with a wide variety of animals, including now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna like woolly mammoths, mastodons and giant bison. Hunting these and other animals was difficult and often very dangerous, and early peoples had to develop strategies and techniques to maximize their chances of a successful hunt. One weapon in particular stands out as an ingenious example of how early hunters were able to maximize their muscle power and kinetic energy in pursuit of their prey—the “spear-thrower,” or atlatl.
Fluted stone points provide the oldest available evidence of the weapons used by prehistoric hunters. These points primarily would have been fixed on the end of wooden or bone shafts and used as spears. Some of these spears would undoubtedly have been used to stab prey, but getting close enough to a woolly mammoth to spear it was a potentially dangerous prospect! It is likely for this reason that the atlatl became the preferred weapon of choice for hunters throughout much of prehistoric Alberta by the Middle Prehistoric Period (approximately 7,500 years ago). The atlatl is essentially a hollowed-out and weighted stick into which a small spear (or dart) is placed. The device is then used to throw the spear, and because the arm and atlatl act together as one elongated lever, the power of the throw is amplified; more force provides greater
energy, which results in a higher speed and longer distance for the thrown spear. Modern experiments recreating the weapon have demonstrated that atlatls had the potential to deliver a devastating wound to an animal, allowing early hunters to kill their prey from a safe distance. Archaeological evidence suggests that the atlatl was used extensively across North America, especially in wide-open areas like the western prairies.
The atlatl was used for thousands of years in conjunction with other hunting strategies, including the famous buffalo jumps. The first serious technological advance in weaponry that challenged the dominance of the atlatl was the bow and arrow, which first appears in present-day Alberta about 2,000 years ago. The bow and arrow, however, did not completely displace the old spear-throwing technology; rather, it appears that people used both weapons to hunt, depending on the particular local environment.
The rich archaeological record of Alberta’s prehistory thus brings to light a long history of human innovation and adaptation to the environment. The atlatl was ideally suited for use as a hunting tool on Alberta’s wide-open prairie landscape, and it continued to be used for hundreds of years after the arrival of the more technologically sophisticated bow and arrow. In an era when early peoples had to rely on their own strength to survive, the atlatl gave hunters a decisive advantage.