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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Feb 2017/5 Wind
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Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]? asked Crosshall Junior School. Read what Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto had to say.

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Spear throwers

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As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortés and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light ‘javelins’: ‘It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards’.
The ‘javelins’ were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.
The ‘arm’ of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears were dangerous weapons.
Though bows and arrows had replaced atlatls in many parts of the world, the atlatl was an ancient and still important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived.
Aztec battles often began with a barrage of arrows and atlatl spears, before the warriors closed in with ‘macuahuitl’s, wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian.
The few Aztec atlatls that survive are highly decorated - like this one in the British Museum. Beautifully carved and decorated with gold, it’s still usable! Did you know there are over 70 events involving atlatl competitions every year in the USA? Sports featuring ancient technology are becoming ever more popular...
emoticon Overheard as an Aztec soldier re-joined his troops after chasing an enemy warrior over a hill with his spear: ‘Got him - atlatlast!!’

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Article more suitable for mature students

John Whittaker throwing a dart with an atlatl

The Aztecs and the atlatl

This article has kindly been specially written for us by John Whittaker, Professor of Anthropology at Grinnell College, Iowa, USA. Professor Whittaker is on the Board of Directors of the World Atlatl Association.

Pic 1: Conquest scene from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 75
Pic 1: Conquest scene from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 75 (Click on image to enlarge)

As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortez and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light spears. So heavy was the hail of weapons that one of the chronicles says “The Mexicas furiously hurled their javelins. It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards.” What the chronicle described as “javelins” were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. The leverage of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears (usually called darts by atlatlists today) were dangerous weapons. It is frequently claimed that they would have penetrated metal armor. This is not true, but most of the Spaniards would have worn lighter chain mail or leather and padded cotton armor similar to that of the Aztecs, and Garcilaso de la Vega, a veteran of Indian fights in Peru and Florida, complained that atlatl darts would pass clear through a man.

Pic 2: The ancient art of atlatl throwing
Pic 2: The ancient art of atlatl throwing (Click on image to enlarge)

The atlatl was an ancient and important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. Although different forms of atlatls were invented sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Ages in both the Old and New Worlds, they had been replaced by bows and arrows in most places. However, atlatls survived into modern times in a few places such as Australia, where the bow never arrived, and alongside the bow and arrow in the Arctic and parts of Latin America. In Europe and much of North America we know them only through archaeological finds.

Pic 3: An Aztec warrior bearing spear, shield and... hinted at strapped round his shoulder is a leather atlatl-holder, mentioned by the Spanish. Codex Mendoza folio 64
Pic 3: An Aztec warrior bearing spear, shield and... hinted at strapped round his shoulder is a leather atlatl-holder, mentioned by the Spanish. Codex Mendoza folio 64 (Click on image to enlarge)

Most of our understanding of Aztec warfare comes from the chronicles of the Spanish and the documents written by the Aztec and their neighbors after they had been conquered. Like the Spanish Empire, the Aztec Empire engaged in wars of conquest, supported an elite class of noble warriors, and sent expeditions against neighboring states. War was aimed at expanding the empire, but warfare was also high drama and religious ritual. Elite warriors gained glory by capturing opponents for sacrifice, so hand weapons and close combat were emphasized.

Pic 4: Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook
Pic 4: Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

Major battles were apparently begun with a barrage of arrows and atlatl darts, before the warriors closed with macuahuitls, wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian. Even in early warfare where ritual is important and only simple weapons are used, a lot of people may be killed, governments are overthrown, and territory changes hands. It is quite likely that Aztec warfare was rather similar to the medieval warfare of contemporary Europe where noble knights fought hand to hand with swords and won glory and ransom, but peasant archers with bows and cross bows did most of the damage and actually decided the outcome of battles.

Pic 5: The superb Aztec atlatl in the British Museum collections
Pic 5: The superb Aztec atlatl in the British Museum collections (Click on image to enlarge)

In any case, the few atlatls that survive from the Aztec and their neighbors are highly decorated. The British Museum specimen (Pic 5) is probably one of the gifts sent back to the king of Spain by Cortez, which then were passed around the royal houses of Europe. It is elaborately carved, and gorgeously gilded, a work of art fit for tribute to a king, or the weapon of a noble warrior. It is, however, perfectly usable, and we should not be surprised that fine weapons, symbols of power and religious war, were richly decorated. It seems likely that simpler models were used by most warriors, but we don’t know.

Pic 6: Costumed as Death, a warrior uses an atlatl to sacrifice a captive tied to a scaffold, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folios 84 and 83
Pic 6: Costumed as Death, a warrior uses an atlatl to sacrifice a captive tied to a scaffold, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folios 84 and 83 (Click on image to enlarge)

The atlatl itself was also an important symbol of warfare and magical power. Most of the important Aztec gods were sometimes shown holding atlatls or darts. Zelia Nuttall, who wrote the first important study of Mesoamerican atlatls, noted that atlatls are often shown with snake designs or associated with serpents. The pictures are stylized and not necessarily realistic, but atlatls were also elaborately decorated with feathers, and associated with birds of prey, not too surprising for a weapon that threw a deadly feathered dart.

Pic 7: Detail of the British Museum atlatl
Pic 7: Detail of the British Museum atlatl (Click on image to enlarge)

The deity entwined with a snake on the British Museum atlatl could be Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, or Mixcoatl, a hunter god from the north, or one of several other gods in the complicated Aztec religion.
Although the Spanish explorers who met Aztecs and others using atlatls mentioned the weapons in their chronicles, their accounts of these unfamiliar weapons are brief and often unclear.

Pic 8: John Whittaker demonstrates the art of using an atlatl
Pic 8: John Whittaker demonstrates the art of using an atlatl (Click on image to enlarge)

Nevertheless, we know a lot about atlatls, or spear throwers as they are also called. In a few recent societies, atlatls remained in use long enough to be observed by modern anthropologists. The best known examples are some of the Inuit (Eskimo) groups in the Arctic, and the native peoples of Australia. Since modern guns have become available everywhere, there are now very few people who continue to use atlatls for hunting or because they wish to hold onto traditional ways.

Pic 9: ‘Basketmaker’ (type used by the Aztecs) style atlatl in use
Pic 9: ‘Basketmaker’ (type used by the Aztecs) style atlatl in use  (Click on image to enlarge)

Modern experiments also teach us a lot about atlatls. As an archaeologist who studies prehistoric technology, I have made and used many different kinds of atlatls, copying both ethnographic forms, and specimens from prehistoric sites. I am not alone; there are now many atlatlists. Only a few of us are archaeologists; most of the modern people skilled in atlatl use learn because hobbies and sports featuring ancient technology have become popular.

Pic 10: Atlatl competitions are a thriving sport in the USA
Pic 10: Atlatl competitions are a thriving sport in the USA (Click on image to enlarge)

The World Atlatl Association (link below) is the main organization promoting atlatls today. In the United States, there are more than 70 events with atlatl competitions every year, organized by WAA and similar groups, and there are similar events in Europe as well. Competition is generally friendly and informal, and part of the goal is educating the public and encouraging new enthusiasts to join us. A few competitions, like the International Standard Accuracy Contest, are standardized and records are kept, and a number of atlatlists practice and compete seriously. However, we throw at all sorts of targets, from model mammoths to balloons; a few of us have even successfully hunted deer, wild pig, small game, and fish with atlatls - not easy, and only legal in a few states in the U. S.

Pic 11: A simple but beautifully made Basketmaker style atlatl, generously donated to Mexicolore by Chuck LaRue
Pic 11: A simple but beautifully made Basketmaker style atlatl, generously donated to Mexicolore by Chuck LaRue (Click on image to enlarge)

I work with atlatls for many reasons. First, like archery, atlatling is fun, an enjoyable sport on many levels. It is a great way to teach students and the public about pre-industrial technology. Basic atlatls are easy and cheap to make, but some were also elaborate and beautiful. Most atlatlists find that making and experimenting with different equipment is part of the fun, although there are now a number of people who make and sell good atlatls and darts. It is also easy to use an atlatl; anyone who can throw a ball can do it. At the same time, it remains a challenging sport. It is more difficult to learn to shoot accurately with an atlatl than with a bow and arrow, and anyone who tries quickly learns to respect the skills and knowledge that went into making and using any ancient weapon.

Pic 12: An expert atlatl handler at work
Pic 12: An expert atlatl handler at work (Click on image to enlarge)

And finally, as an archaeologist, practical experience with atlatls allows me to interpret archaeological finds, and understand old accounts of atlatls. Enough of us have now become expert at using atlatls to judge the advantages and limitations of the weapons Moctezuma marshaled against the invading Spaniards. Why would the Aztec continue to use an older weapon, when they had bows and arrows as well? The main advantage of bows is that they are easier to learn to use and to shoot accurately, and they can fire many arrows rapidly. Atlatls on the other hand use a larger, slower projectile.

Pic 13: Venus as an owl strikes Tezcatlipoca as god of the North, Codex Borgia
Pic 13: Venus as an owl strikes Tezcatlipoca as god of the North, Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient Mexican art shows warriors carried 3 or 4 darts, rather than the quiver full of arrows possible with a bow. However, the heavier atlatl dart has good penetration, and may have been more effective against Aztec padded cotton armor. Why did I say with confidence that stone-tipped atlatl darts did not penetrate Spanish steel plate armor? Because modern experiments have tried, and failed. These weapons served the Aztec well, and are still effective, but modern atlatlists now understand their advantages and limitations better than the early chroniclers and archaeologists.

Pic 14: Atlatl throwers today
Pic 14: Atlatl throwers today (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main pic and pix 7 (bottom), 10 and 14 courtesy of John Whittaker
• Pic 1: scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Pic 2: from Wikipedia
• Pic 3: scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza, London, 1938
• Pic 4: courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Pix 5 and 7 (top): from the British Museum website
• Pic 6: scanned from Nuttall, Zelia and Arthur G. Miller The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico, Dover Publications, New York, 1975
• Pix 9 (bottom) and 12: photos by Devin Pettigrew
• Pic 8: Photos by Jeff Lindow, courtesy of John Whittaker
• Pic 9 (top): Courtesy of John Whittaker, from Grant, Campbell: The Occurrence of the Atlatl in Rock Art, American Indian Rock Art, 5: 1-21. San Juan County Museum Association, Farmington, 1978
• Pic 11: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore. *Special thanks to Chuck LaRue for the atlatl!
• Pic 13: scanned from Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript, Dover Publications, New York, 1993

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 30th 2009

Learn more about the macuahuitl...

See more original Aztec atlatls...

The World Atlatl Association

‘Why an atlatl works’ - a US teaching site for children

Details of the British Museum atlatl

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this interesting observation, Marvin - and yes, there DOES seem to be some confusion on this point...