Ancient dart throwing provides introduction to experimental archeology

A student prepares to throw a dart from an atlatl
A student in Shannon Tushingham’s archeological methods and interpretation class prepares to throw a dart from an atlatl (photo by Dean Hare, WSU Photo Services).

The first complex weapon system developed by humans is helping Washington State University students learn about both ancient technological innovation and modern-day experimental archeology. 

Originating in Europe over 30,000 years ago, the “atlatl” consists of a short stick or board with a cup at one end that enables the wielder to throw a dart further and with more force than a spear. The weapon pre-dates the bow and is still used around the world today to hunt large game. 

On a cloudy afternoon earlier this semester on the Thompson Flats at WSU Pullman, students in Shannon Tushingham’s archeological methods and interpretation class had the unique opportunity to hunt wooly mammoths with the ancient weapon system. The key difference between the students’ mammoth hunt and that of their ancient ancestors was that the mammoths at WSU were made of cardboard. 

“I find that my students just love anything hands on, and this is a real fun one,” Tushingham said. “Whenever you get to throw projectiles in class, it is a big hit.” 

The lab exercise Tushingham has her students do each semester isn’t all fun and games though. 

The exercise provides an introduction to how ancient humans practiced social organization, taught their children to hunt, and invented better hunting implements. 

Shannon Tushingham shows students how to hold an atlatl.
Shannon Tushingham instructs her students on throwing an atlatl.

The dart throwing practice with the atlatls, which are part of the Museum of Anthropology’s learning collection, also gives students a look into the long history of experimental archeology at WSU. 

“I link the atlatl throwing experiment to the work we are doing recreating different forms of ancient technology and hunting strategies,” Tushingham said. “So, my students aren’t just learning in an abstract way. They are getting a chance to use the technology themselves. It provides a nice segue into discussions about the work research faculty are doing making tools and devices used by ancient humans-and similar work with modern Tribal communities.”

Since the early 1970s, WSU archeologists have conducted a wide range of innovative research recreating ancient garments, fishing and hunting tools, musical instruments, and even smoking pipes to better understand and recognize how people used them in the past. 

One example of experimental archeology research that students are participating in is an ongoing project Tushingham is doing with local tribal communities.  Last summer, she and her students got to try their hand at harvesting and cooking Native plants in a traditional way in research developed in collaboration with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. After digging up a variety of roots, the students were taught by Kalispel experts how to make the kind of earth oven they  have been cooking with for thousands of years. After three days of cooking, Tushingham and her students were able to sample their creation.

“It is an amazing experience. It gives you a real appreciation of the amount of work it takes to dig roots for example,” Tushingham said. “The food was also quite good.” 

A student prepares to throw a dart from an atlatl.
A student in Shannon Tushingham’s archeological methods and interpretation class prepares to throw a dart from an atlatl.

This coming summer, Tushingham is overseeing fieldwork in Okanogan County with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and also is leading a four-week field school in Pend d’ Oreille County near the Kalispel reservation to excavate the oven they built to study what chemical signatures are left over from the cooking process. They then will compare the results to ancient earth ovens to better document tribal first foods and culinary traditions.  

“We do this kind of work so that we know exactly what to look for in the archeological record when we are out in the field,” she said. “So, we can say ‘oh ya,’ this looks familiar because we have done it before. It is a great way to test out your ideas and to get students involved. They love it.”

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