Media Prehistoria.com: Frequently asked questions

Interpreting the past for the present

Frequently asked questions

What is an atlatl?

Pronounced at-uhl-at-uhl or at-lat-uhl, the name is derived from the Aztec word for spear-thrower. The atlatl is a spear-throwing weapon of considerable antiquity. It is made of wood (sometimes antler or other material) and averages about the length of the arm. It has a hook, pocket or other contrivance at one end for holding the spear. This allows the user to throw a projectile much further by artificially lengthening the arm. In its best developed form, the atlatl itself is flexible, like the limb of a bow, and a weight is added to provide load for the spring.

Possibly the first composite weapon, versions of the atlatl are known from many parts of the world. It predates the bow and arrow by many thousands of years. It was in use in Europe by about 30,000 years ago. In Mexico it was still in use when the Spaniards arrived during the 1500s, and Australian Aborigines used their version (there called a womera) well into modern times. In much of the U.S., the atlatl was the principal hunting weapon from the end of the Ice Age (about 10,000 years ago) onward. It was replaced by the bow only in relatively recent times, between about 2000 and 1500 years ago.

Are you Native American, or do you have Native American ancestry?

No, not to my knowledge. One of the main points that I try to deliver is that we are all descended from stone-age ancestors. Race or geographic origin don’t change this fact. I can hold up a stone tool, a fire drill, or a length of hand-twisted rope and say with confidence to anyone-- literally, any human being, “Your ancestors made and used things very much like these”. In studying the Americas it is necessary to recognize that Native Americans were the only stone-age inhabitants, but in the long view this is just a blip.

How did you become interested in primitive technology?

How/where/from whom did you learn these skills?

These two questions are closely related, and are best answered together. I have always had a fascination with natural history and archaeology, and my knowledge was assembled from a number of sources. There is no single person I can point to as a main mentor. At the risk of sounding like an acceptance speech at the Oscars, here are some of the key people and turning points in my education: My first stepfather, H.G. Prather, was an ingenious backwoodsman and career Air Force (Army Air Corps) man. In my early teen years he taught me the basics of woodcraft, knife sharpening, blacksmithing, and plant lore. I retained and used these skills through the years. In the early 1980s my fascination with artifacts manifest itself in a largely unguided effort to learn flintknapping.

After finishing a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force, I returned to the University of Georgia where I met some of my intellectual and ideological mentors. In the spring of 1986 I took Dr. Charles Hudson’s Southeastern Indians class, which led me irretrievably down the path of anthropology and archaeology. That summer I attended the UGA archaeology field school under the direction of Dr. Mark Williams. Mark recognized the intensity of my interest and kept pushing and supporting my efforts. Dr. Steve Kowalewski instilled in me the importance of concise writing and critical thinking.

Although I had already determined to make primitive technology my life’s work, a single day in 1987 proved to be massively important. I attended a one-day skills course with Eustace Conway at which I did a pathetic little flintknapping demonstration. That day I learned the basics of fire, cordage, and other skills that brought together my disjointed repertoire of knowledge. Of perhaps greater significance, I learned that primitive skills could be taught outside of a rigidly academic framework.

My meeting with Eustace opened a door that led to many acquaintances who have been influential to me. Among these is Steve Watts from the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, North Carolina, whom I met the following year (1988). We quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, and our respective philosophies about primitive technology continue to share much in common.

These and many other contacts allowed me to become part of a network of practitioners from whom I have learned much.

When you demonstrate, do you dress in Indian or period costume?

The short answer is “no”, but this is a question that deserves a good answer. When I first started teaching, I was very much into buckskin and buckskin clothing. For quite a few years I wore items of my homemade clothing daily-- not only for teaching and demonstrating, but to the grocery store, to get the oil changed in my truck, and so forth. As my fascination faded, I couldn’t face the artificiality of putting on my buckskins for show. One of my main reasons for this is that I’m not trying to re-enact prehistory. My job is to teach primitive skills and technology, and I don’t want a contrived appearance to distract people from that message. I still wear my buckskins on occasion, but purely for my own enjoyment. My main consideration is comfort and practicality.

Even re-enactment has pitfalls if one isn‘t fairly specific: At virtually any powwow or rendezvous, it is not uncommon to see demonstrators dressed in 18th century frontier costume chipping Archaic points, using atlatls, or engaging other skills that greatly predate European contact. Despite a generally old-timey look, this is no less absurdly anachronistic than walking into a fur-trade era rendezvous carrying a musket while wearing a lime-green polyester leisure suit!

Also, if I were asked to lecture on the traditional technology or customs of a particular ethnic or racial group, I wouldn’t be expected to dress “Asian” or “African-American” or “Hispanic” (or Scandinavian, or Australian, or anything else). One wouldn’t want to offend living peoples by promoting negative or outmoded stereotypes. We shouldn’t forget that Native Americans are a living people, and dressing up “like an Indian” has the potential to be offensive, if not downright distasteful. If Native Americans choose to dress in traditional costume (or even promote stereotypes), that’s their right-- it’s their culture.

How can I learn more about primitive skills?

There are quite a few primitive skills instructors and teaching events around the country. Some instructors publish class schedules for day, weekend, and longer classes. There are also large week-long campout events involving twenty or more instructors and upwards of 150 participants, with daily class offerings posted. I teach at some of these events, but I no longer offer scheduled open-enrollment classes on my own.

Another way to learn more is to join the Society of Primitive Technology. The Society’s biannual publication, the Bulletin of Primitive Technology, contains not only informative how-to articles, but it has a limited classified section with information (largely from the membership) about events, materials, teaching resources, and other items of interest. Organized by region, it is a good place to find out about events and instructors in your area.

How can I get in touch with you?

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