Stealth Technology 1992 BC
by William R. "Atlatl Bob" Perkins, ©1992 AD
I've made the study of atlatls and the technology they represent my life work. Every time I think that I have learned or discovered nearly all there is to know about the physics of this most ancient of weapon systems, something new arises and I am humbled again by the obvious sophistication of the ancient mind. My first experience with this phenomenon was in 1988 while studying a western Type II atlatl weight recovered from a burial in the Great Basin. On a dark and stormy night a long-dead "master Atlatlist" reached out from beyond the grave and knocked me back as if to say, "Look, you're not so smart. We/l discovered this first. Don't confuse intelligence with education." I really felt as though someone from the past had spoken to me, for this Type II atlatl weight was the most advanced design I had yet studied.
Ancient people were every bit as intelligent as we are today. In fact H we were able to go back in time we would find a species as capable and intelligent as ourselves. Simply because we live in an age of super computers doesn't mean that we possess the license to label primitive technology as crude or to claim that every idea we come up with today is original. This is certainly the case with what I have discovered or, more correctly, rediscovered, about this ancient weapon system. Oftentimes we are only a conduit between the past and present, merely reporting what occurred long ago. Like an astronomer gazing through a telescope and witnessing some explosion far off in the cosmos which occurred long before hominids came down from out of the trees and walked upright, we can gain insight into our ancient past. From time to time, like the episode in '88,1 get an idea, or hear a little voice, and again I am surprised and very impressed with the not-so-inferior technology of our predecessors.
This past spring at the Rivercane Rendezvous in Georgia, I was wandering among the variety of classes when a friend showed me a display of atlatls. One of the specimens had what is known as a Banner Stone on it. Having wondered as to the purpose for the design of the Banner Stone (other than as a weight), it was time to test a theory that I had held for years. I asked my friend to demonstrate the use of this atlatl for me. He swung two atlatls, one with a Banner Stone and one without, for comparison. It was at this point that the little primitive voice inside my head spoke out again. I demonstrated for my friend the discovery I had made, asking him to listen to the difference in the swings. As I did this, I realized that the Banner Stone was not just an atlatl weight, but also an atlatl silencer. Before I go further with this theory, though, I think I should give a little background on atlatls, atlatl weights and the additional research which supports my theory.
The distribution of Banner Stones, as far as I know, is mainly east of the Mississippi River. They are generally made of banded slate, have a hole approximately 10 to 12 millimeters in diameter drilled longitudinally through them, and can be said to resemble butterfly wings. Whether or not they are atlatl weights is still of some dispute, but after considering the subject of Banner Stones and atlatl weights quite carefully, it is my opinion that they are precisely that.
Although some Banner Stones are quite massive and elaborate in their design and appearance they must be written off as symbols of power and authority. Banner Stones of this nature were certainly non functional as atlatl weights, just as royal scepters of historical times were non-functioning tools used as symbols of status and authority. Functional atlatl weights tended to be less elaborate and more in the range of 80 grams of mass.
Atlatl weights are not charms for hunting magic or some kind of counter balance, as some researchers have surmised. For anyone who has attempted to hold an atlatl--be it weighted or not--in the throwing position for an extended period of time, the counter balance theory is flawed. The theory suggests that the hunter can hold a dart at the ready for extended periods of time, being prepared to launch the dart if the opportunity presented itself. The counter balance allows the hunter to compensate for the weight of the system mass through adjustments of the throwing hand. Experience dictates that one's arm will fall asleep, making an attempted launch ineffective at best.
The true function of the atlatl weight is to force an atlatl to flex and store more energy to be released against the stored energy of a dart's flex. It's similar to a diver jumping off of a spring board. The diver and the spring board flex and then push away from each other, using their stored energy to achieve a smoother, more efficient launch. If you have ever watched a skilled diver perform precision dives, you noticed that he will adjust the fulcrum point of the board to increase or decrease the flex of the board as it relates to his weight and timing of the dive. The mass of the atlatl weight also acts as a timing device, bringing the spring of the atlatl into phase with the spring of the dart, so that all the energies release at the proper moment.
There are many variables to consider when studying atlatl weights in particular and the spectrum of variables greatly increase when considering the peculiarities of the atlatls associated with them. If indeed Banner Stones are atlatl weights then why is this particular and rather involved design used instead of the simpler "point mass" type of weight found in the West?
Atlatls recovered in the Western United States average about 60 cm in length and weigh approximately 60 grams, give or take 10 grams. Atlatls of the Eastern United States tend to be somewhat shorter, at around 40 cm. This difference in length is the first problem to consider in the Banner Stone question, and it is resolved rather simply when considering launch geometry, environmental conditions and the function of the atlatl itself.
First off, the length of the atlatl in general can be explained by the Theory of Launch Geometry. Launch Geometry simply states that for close range targets, a shorter atlatl is required, and as the distance from the target increases, the length of the atlatl should in crease proportionately. The understanding of this theory and its mathematical underpinnings is supported by experiment and the discovery of multiple length atlatl systems which allowed the hunter to adjust the length of his atlatl as needed.
Environment plays a key role in determining the general length of the atlatl. The atlatls of the Eastern U.S. are shorter because targets present themselves at closer ranges due to the ample cover of the deciduous forests. In the West, where the cover is sparse and the targets not as easily approached, the atlatls are generally longer.
Returning to the subject of atlatl weights, I would like to point out that their mass is directly related to the length of the atlatl being used. In order for the weight to function effectively its mass and location along the atlatl shaft must be carefully considered, not to mention the proper spring force of the atlatl itself, thus providing the ability to fine-tune the system. One reason for the increase in mass of eastern weights (80 grams+-) is that shorter atlatls associated with them require more weight to perform properly. The shorter spring requires a larger mass to force it to flex and store the proper amount of energy required for the system. Western atlatls require less weight mass (even though they possess the same spring force) because of the mechanical advantage of their length.
Everything adds up nicely, so far. But what I have explained up to this point is merely the logic of Banner Stones as atlatl weights for short atlatls. We have yet to explain their odd and rather involved shape. I believe that this is related to the environment and the target's proximity.
I started developing the theory of Banner Stones as atlatl silencers while reading about Stealth Bombers and how the shape of the B-2 Bomber causes radar waves to deflect around, rather than away from the aircraft. While its true that radar waves and sound waves are not the same thing, the math involved is similar. If a Banner Stone could deflect the air and sound waves around it in a similar fashion, it would be possible to silence the atlatl so that it could not be as easy to detect. This would be an asset to a hunter that is closer to the target, as is usually the case in the Eastern U.S.
The environment may play a role in the amount of sound produced by a swinging atlatl. The speed and clarity of the sound varies with the density of the air, its velocity being greater at sea level than at higher elevations. Humidity may also play a role in its velocity, since sound travels faster in water. It is sometimes humid in the Eastern U.S., providing a more efficient medium for-the propagation of sound waves.
I have tested this theory with both weighted and non-weighted atlatls at numerous events. Test audiences have included both past and present SPT board members. With backs to the tester and blind to the types of atlatls being compared (i.e., weighted versus non-weighted) there was a clear consensus that the specimen bearing the Banner Stone was obviously quieter. They were also asked to change position throughout the test. As the observers position changed so that the atlatl was to their side, the sound got louder. Their reports support what would be expected for the propagation of sound waves. The farther to the side of the target, the greater the sound level, indicating that a correctly shaped banner stone will direct the air flow to the sides and back of the weight, so that a minimum of noise is heard from the target's location. This is primitive stealth technology, without the modern cost overruns. Perhaps the pentagon should have contacted us first!
-Perkins, Bob and Paul Leininger. The Weighted Atlatl and Dart: A Deceptively Complicated Mechanical System. The ATLATL. Vol. 2, No. 2 and 3, and Vol. 3, No. 1. Summer and Fall, 1989, and Winter 1990.
-Raymond, Anan. Experiments in the function and performance of the weighted atlatl. World Archaeology: Weaponry and Warfare. Vol. 18, No. 2, Oct. 1986.
-Webb, William S. The Development of the Spear Thrower. The University of Kentucky, Occasional Paper in Anthropology No. 2. Univ. of Kentucky, Lexington, 1957. Reprinted 1981 and available from Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, PO Box 382 Collinsville, IL 62234.
William R. "Atlatl Bob" Perkins lives in Manhattan, Montana. Stealth Technology 1992 BC was published in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Issue #4, Fall 1992.
Learn to Make Your Own Atlatl!
The Atlatl and Dart: An Ancient Hunting Weapon
Atlatl Weights: Function and Classification
Check out Atlatl Bob's Atlatls
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