How do you throw spears?

17 March 2011

Interview with

Mike Bumstead, University of Aberdeen

Tom::  Well today, I've turned up in the middle of a field, a park rather.  It's sunny, it's windy, and I'm meeting up with my friend Mike Bumstead.  Mike, why Atlatl (Native American spear thrower)are we here in this field today and why are there some long darts on the ground?

Mike -   Well, we're going to learn about spear throwers today.

Tom -   Ahh, spear throwers.  I see.  Okay, so can you just describe what you've got in your hand for us please.

Mike -   Well I have two pieces of the technology that we refer to as spear throwers:  one which is Native American, central Native American in design and it's an atlatl, something you would pronounce in a different way in this part of the world.

Tom -   Okay, wait.  So let's just take a step back.  We've got a spear thrower and then you use this word 'atlatl.' So, there's different names for this thing.

Mike -   Yeah, there are.  Basically, what it is is a long stick with a hook on the end. Sometimes it's a grooved, sometimes it's not with a counter balance which you use to throw darts:  what we call spears. Long, sharp objects at things.

Tom -   So, we call it the spear-thrower, this other one you have in your left hand is the Inuit version isn't it from the North and Circle Polar regions, so some people might call that a throwing board.  What's the Australian one?

Mike -   The Australian one is called a woomera.  Now unlike these ones that I have here which are single purpose objects which have sort of a bone hook at the end, the woomera is a longer, narrow curved board and it was a bit more multi-purpose.  Some of the existing examples have stone sharp edges placed on one side and some of them in fact, as I understand were used as shields.  Some of them were of this size and so they're more than just a single-use spear-thrower.

Tom -   Okay, so it some spear-throwers are multipurpose.  That's quite fascinating.  The ones Mike are holding are quite different.  The native American one he is holding which is a replica has a stone weight about a third of the way down near the handle and as there's bone point he's talking about -it's just a bit longer than my forearm- and I believe they should be about that size for individual.  I mean, how do you use them, Mike?  Can you just show me and I'll maybe describe to our listeners what you're doing?  He'sholding this 3 ½ or 4-foot long darts.  These are aluminium competition darts you can use like soft woods and there is a flight in the end.  So it looks like a long arrow...  I see..! Can you describe what you're doing, Mike?

Mike -   All right.  The darts have a knock in the back.  So you place that on the hook, this bone part at the end that we've been describing, we refer to as the hook.  And then you hold the dart along the length of the board with the handle in your hand and you hold the dart in the same hand as you hold the handle, sort of like a pen.

Tom -   Okay.  Yeah, so at the moment, Mike has got thespear-thrower in his hand.  He's holding it a little bit like a tennis racket or a badminton racket and at the same time on top of this spear-thrower, he has the dart lodged into the knock and he's balancing it on his thumb and first two fingers. A bit like a pen, yeah.  So you're holding that now.  What are you going to with it?

Mike -   I'm going to aim at the target that has been provided today which is the box for a Delonghi brand convection heater.

Tom -   The rare mammalian species that has decided to grace us with its presence.  Now Mike is - I'm be standing back for safety reasons - that's a long way, Mike.  That's a long way.  You've missed the target quite a bit.

Mike -   Well, the target we've had setup which is setup for practical class that we teach at the University of Aberdeen is probably about 40 yards away from our position.  And of course, these kinds of technologies, these spear-throwers are not really designed for close range hunting. So that being said, I'm also not very good with them, so I'll probably not going to hit your Delonghi anyway. 

Tom - Okay, with second try, that's much closer, but that's great.  So, I mean, that's a good 60 metres that's travelled and how far can these things go do you think?

Mike -   Ancient technologies, I mean, we're using aluminium competition darts so these actually flow quite far and you can throw them probably anciently 250 to 300 meters. The longest throws in the modern era are probably two times as long.

Tom -   Okay, that's quite a long distance.  Now with atlatl, one thing we have to mention is that this technology compared to just throwing a spear with your hands allows you to throw the dart much, much further.  I mean, the dart and the spear, we must make a distinction here mustn't we?  They're different things aren't because this isn't - when I would thought we're doing spear-throw today, this isn't a spear, Mike.  This is 3 ½, 4-foot long aluminium pole.

Mike -   Yeah and these modern ones that we're using are - they're exactly as you've described them.  They're really, really big arrows.

Tom -   Yeah.

Neanderthal_hunting_sceneMike -   With this technology when we say spear-throwing, that's what we're talking about.  We're not talking about javelins or a prodding stick with a stone tip on it, right?

Tom -   That's the more traditional idea on a spear I think: 6-foot long staff, massive, iron point on it, but we're not talking about that at all.  We're talking about launching big arrows basically.  

Mike - Yeah.  Even that being said, those what we think of as stereotypical spears, there was an evolution in how to throw those as well.  Ancient Greeks used a leather strap that was tied around the base and then what you would do is as you released it, it would serve the same purpose as these spear-throwers that we're using, but it would also cause it to rifle.  If you think about how a bullet works as it comes out of a modern firearm, the grooves are on the inside of the barrel to allow it to fly more stably and straighter - those kinds of other strappings that were used at that point would serve the same effect.  It'd help to stabilise and straighten the flight of what you would say a more stereotypical spear would fly as.

Tom -   Okay, so let's just have a - I might have a go in a minute actually Mike, if you wouldn't mind.  I think I can give this, if you just hold that.

Mike -   Okay.  All right, you've got it setup.  You've got it lined up.

Tom -   Okay.  I'm going to kill it.  I'm going to kill it coupled by...

Mike -   So do it.

Tom -   That was pretty bad.  Okay, I'll just for our listeners, it's not as easy as it looks as Mike has demonstrated.  I think I might have another go...

Tom -   So, despite my three attempts at throwing a spear with a spear-thrower, I think we've concluded Mike that I'm not your natural hunter.  But it's not always about hunting, is it?  These were offensive weapons that were used.  You were mentioning to me earlier about Montezuma.

Mike -   Yes.  The Aztecs were very well-known for using these spear-throwers.  The Aztecs in fact, when the conquistadors arrived in Spain terrified them with the potential havoc that could be upon the Spanish with these weapons.  And it's really not until Cortez convinces them that he's their God and trouble occurs for that civilisation.

Diana -   Other electrical appliance boxes are available.  That was Naked Archaeologist Tom Birch and Mike Bumstead who's a post-graduate researcher at the University of Aberdeen.

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