Early Warfare: Girls on Top

The Economist | April 10, 2008

VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK, NEVADA—Spear-throwers of the world, unite!

In the lexicon of relations between women, their menfolk and sport (the golf widow, the soccer mom), there is little mention of the atlatl wife. But several were present on April 6th and 7th in the Nevada desert some 90km (55 miles) north of Las Vegas. The setting was Valley of Fire State Park, a stunning sweep of red sandstone cliffs, 4,000-year-old rock art, wildflowers and air-conditioned mobile homes that played host to the annual meeting of the World Atlatl Association.

The atatlists, if one may so dub them, are a group of enthusiasts who wish to restore to its former glory an ancient art that they feel is in danger of dying out—the art of spear-throwing. To give their quest a certain amount of primitive street-cred they have borrowed the Aztec word for the main piece of equipment involved, the “spear-thrower” itself. This is actually a carefully shaped stick just under a metre long which acts as an extension of the human thrower’s arm. The spear is balanced along it, with the blunt end snug against a hook. The other end is held by the hurler. The atlatl serves to amplify the hurler’s arm movement in a way that allows a stone-tipped spear to be propelled at speeds of up to 200kph. The result, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, is a formidable long-range weapon system.

It is all delightfully eccentric of course (though arguably no more eccentric than the survival of that other hand-propelled weapon system, the bow and arrow). However, there is a serious underlying scientific point, for the atlatl may have played an important part in human evolution.

According to John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York State who studies the evolution of early projectile technology, the earliest known atlatl is a 27,000-year-old example from France made out of reindeer antler. However, their ubiquity in human culture (they are known from every settled continent) suggests to him that they were invented much earlier, presumably before humanity first ventured out of Africa about 70,000 years ago.

John Whittaker, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, believes atlatls were social equalisers. An unassisted spear is a man’s weapon. It required strength and body mass to be effective, but if you have these attributes it is reasonably easy to hurl the projectile in the right direction. Using a spear-thrower, however, takes real skill, since the spear must be kept in the correct orientation until the moment of release. This, according to Dr Whittaker, means that dexterous women and children can wield a spear as well as muscular men.

Spears, of course, are dual-use technology. They can be employed for hunting (and have been used, into historical times, for taking game as varied as bison, kangaroos, whales and walruses). But they can also be employed for warfare. In this context, the fact that they can be wielded by women may be crucial, for warfare—and particularly warfare in hunter-gatherer societies—is often a form of hunt, with women as the prey. Women who could wield missiles would have been at a significant advantage.

If that theory is correct, the atlatl wives of Fire Valley are, indeed, no string-along appendages of their husbands. Instead, they are communing with their sisters of long ago in what would have been one of the first great assertions of feminism.

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