Archaeology Students Practice Throwing Spears

Student Megan Armstrong prepares to to throw using an Aztec tool called the atlatl. Armstrong, who is also an archer, said atlatl throwing requires less strength than a bow, but a bow is better for accuracy. (Theresa Matthiesen / The Independent)

By Theresa Matthiesen – Reporter

Anthropology instructor Dr. Jay Fancher demonstrated 45,000 year old spear throwing techniques to his archaeology students on May 16. “You can get the distance,” he said after throwing three spears. “The accuracy is the harder part.”

Archeologist Kenneth Feder wrote in his book “The Past in Perspective” that “The spear-thrower is a remarkable example of applied physics practiced by ancient humans. By artificially extending the arm … both ancient people and the Aztecs were able to dramatically increase the accuracy as well as the power with which they could launch a spear in the quest for food or in battle.

When 16th century Spaniards invaded Aztec territory, the Aztecs could not match Spanish firearms, but their spears and atlatl — a handheld tool used to throw spears with greater velocity — could pierce the invaders’ steel armor.

Student Maggie Morgan threw the spear with and the atlatl. She said the atlatl helped launch the spear As students took turns launching spears, others responded with exclamations over how far the spears landed.

“It’s amazing,” Fancher said. “It’s a stick. That’s all you needed in terms of technology to get that distance.”

When student Andrea Smith threw the spear through the plastic shelf which held the target, Fancher joked that “That’s why you sign the waiver.” The spear was not sharpened and was undamaged by the impact.

He said early atlatls made of bone and ivory were heavier than the wooden versions and were eventually replaced by the bow and arrow.

“With this you have to get big and rear up,” he said. “But with the bow and arrow you can stay low.”

Student Megan Armstrong said throwing was easier with the atlatl  because it’s light and its handle balances the weight. Armstrong, an archer, said atlatl throwing is easier because archery requires more arm strength.

Fancher teaches atlatl throwing in his archeology classes and at a STEM summer camp for middle schoolers.

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