The Use of the Atlatl on Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan

by M.W. Sterling

Smithsonian Institution Buearu of American Ethnology Bulletin 173, Anthropoligical Papers No. 59

In 1944 Richard Stewart and M.W. Sterling engaged in an archeological expidition on behalf of the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonain Institution. It was at this time that they visited Lake Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan where a small group of indians from the village of Janitzio invited them to join a coot hunting trip on the lake. The only weapon used to hunt the ducks would be the atlatl which is the Aztec name for a spear thrower. The atlatl had been the primary hunting tool for centuries before the bow was invented but by the 16th century it was no longer widly used except among the most civilized regions of middle america and Peru where the atlatl was still used as a military and sporting weapon. Early Spanish cronicles attested to their lack of defense against the Aztec rain of darts which were able to penetrate Spanish armour with ease. After the conquest the atlatl was no longer used as a weapon of war but persisted until recent times as an aquatic hunting tool used primaily to take birds or fish much like the Eskimo of the far North. The hunting technique of both groups are very similar. A boat approaches a sitting flock of birds until the birds take flight at which time the dart is launched into their midst. A multi prong spear is used by both groups of hunters.

Lake Patzcuaro lies on a major migratory route and is home to many ducks that are hunted almost year-round but during the fall migration an annual communal hunt is conducted on October 31st where up to a thousand canoes move onto the lake, each containing several men who form concentric rings around the huge concentration of ducks. The innermost ring of canoes approaches the ducks until they take flight at which time the men in the canoes stand and throw their spears at the rising ducks which take flight and usually land within the next larger ring of canoes who begin to close in on the ducks to repeat the process. Thousands of ducks are taken in this way in a single days hunt.

Stewart and Sterling accompanied two canoes engaged in a much smaller hunt where a large flock of coots were approached slowly and finally the drifting canoes caused the ducks to take flight about 30 yards from the boats. The men in both boats immediately stood up and threw their spears into the rising flock of ducks resulting in one hit and one miss. Each hunter carries two spears and if time permits, he will quickly throw both! Without the alarm caused by gun shots, the birds are not greatly disturbed and land about 300 yards away and are slowly approached again. "This time each man got a bird." Further stalking was abandoned after the birds became disturbed and took flight when still out of range the atlatl spears in the approaching canoes.


Canoes always approach the flock with the bow of the boat pointing toward the flock and when the ducks take flight "the hunter is ready to throw, he quickly stands erect, with his left foot forward. The shaft of the spear is grasped near the middle and lifted by the left hand. At the same time the atlatl is grasped in the right hand, the index and middle fingers are inserted through the two holes, and the remaining fingers and the thumb grasp the handle. The spur is instantly engaged in the hollow at the butt of the spear shaft, the spear is lifted by the left hand to shoulder height and parallel to the water. In this position, the shaft is released by the left hand and launched by the right with a sweeping overhand motion. The shaft is steadied in position, parallel to the long axis of the canoe until the instant the throw is started, the thumb and fingers grasping the atlatl handle."


The spear shaft is 9 feet long and constructed from Arundo donax which is a giant reed originally introduced from Asia Minor but now widespread throughout the Western Hemisphere. In earlier aboriginal times the native cane Gynerium sgittatum was probably used but was abandoned when the lighter Arundo donax became available. "This is not only easier to throw, but it floats." The butt of the shaft is cut just below one of the joints which offers a natural depression for the spur of the thrower. The point end is cut about 6 inches from a joint forming a hole that holds the three iron barbed prongs which formed the leister.

The atlatl is usually carved from palo azul wood by a member of the community and offered for sale along with darts at a price equivelant to the cost of a couple of ducks. Atlatl length varies from a little over 20 inches to 24 3/8 inches. One side has a groove running from the two finger holes to the spur at the distal end. A cross section would appear like the letter U. The bottom or underside of the distal end has a hook-like projection that is used to help retrieve the dart or duck from the water. This hook is sometimes carved to look like a duck bill.