Throwing Spears with Gary Nolf

 atlatl11A Please join me in welcoming Gary Nolf, president of the World Atlatl Association (WAA), to the blog today.  Visit their website at http://waa.basketmakeratlatl.com  to learn more. According to the website Texas Beyond History (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net), “in prehistoric Texas, the atlatl and dart was the main weapon system in use for 10,000 years or more until they were replaced by the bow and arrow between A.D 500-1000.”

Galf Nolf demonstrates his technique

Gary Nolf demonstrates his technique

Thanks for being with us today, Gary.  Could you describe an atlatl briefly for our readers? Atlatls are ancient weapons that preceded the bow and arrow in most parts of the world. They are one of humankind’s first mechanical inventions. The word atlatl (pronounced at-latal) comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, who were still using them when encountered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Other words include spear-thrower, estolica (Spanish), propulseur (French), speerschleuder (German) and woomera or miru (English versions of the most common Australian terms).

Atlatl and spears or darts made and photographed by Jack Johnson

Atlatl and spears or darts made and photographed by Jack Johnson

What did ancient people used them for?  They were used for hunting game. The largest animals would have been mastodons and woolly mammoths. Atlatls were even used with harpoons for hunting whales and seals. They were also used in warfare. The Spanish conquistadors feared them because they could pierce certain types of armor.

How did you learn to throw one? Is it hard?  I learned by attending an event in Vermont about 10 years ago. I could teach you how to throw in just a couple of minutes. The difficulty comes with the accuracy which takes a bit of practice.  

I’m wondering if you’ve ever been to the Archeo-Olympics at Seminole Canyon State Park.  Atlatl throwing is one of the events.   No, I have not, but I have been to events in Nevada at the valley of Fire, contests in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida , New Jersey and Quinson France.

What kinds of events can modern atlatl throwers compete in?  If you go on the World Atlatl atlatl menAssociation web site you will see that there are two standardized contests. One is the European and other is the International Standard Accuracy Contest. You can shoot anywhere in the world and compare your score. The scores are listed on the web site which is updated frequently. Each event also has local events such as 3D targets.

Are you a good shot? I will let you decide . Google my name or go to You tube and watch me on the David Letterman Show.

Wow! I’ve never had anyone who was on Letterman on the blog before (I don’t think!) Cool!  That must have been fun.  And yes, I’d say you are a very good shot.  You know, the rock art of the Lower Pecos, which is the area I write about, contains images some people think might be atlatls and spears. Where else were atlatls used? Evidence of their use has been found in every continent in the world except Africa. This may be due to the fact that they are made of wood. They are still used in parts of Mexico and Australia.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you with an atlatl?  I think the funniest thing is watching the faces of people trying it for the first time. The dart goes much father than you think. I have literally taught thousands of school kids how to do it and seventh graders can throw over 50 yards with a little practice. I even had a group of nuns try it who thought it was awesome.

Hunter with atlatl

Hunter with atlatl

How does the World Atlatl Association benefit its members? The WAA web site provides hundreds of links to get information on the history of the atlatl, how to build an atlatl and where to purchase an atlatl. It provides information how to run a contest and keeps tract of who is scoring what around the world. The Annual meeting this year will be held at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut the first weekend in October. The WAA website also posts a list of all of the events that are scheduled world wide.

Hey, look who’s coming in!  It’s Jack Johnson,  park archeologist at Amistad National Recreation Area.  Hi Mary, and you too, Gary. Good interview. I hope you don’t mind me coming in. I just wanted to tell you about the equipment I made in the picture. I tried to set it up to show how the atlatl spur engages the nock at the back of the dart. I also included a hafted stone point and one of my sotol darts with a modern carbon fiber foreshaft and target point.  The carved wooden point is something I made this afternoon just for fun and to my knowledge has no precedent in the archeological record of the lower Pecos. It is inspired by Inuit seal hunting harpoon tips, usually made of bone or ivory. My intent is to use this for atlatl spearfishing, but it will probably snap the first time I hit the rocky bottom of the riverbed.

Well, thanks for coming by, Jack. You can read one of Jack’s stories in my post of January 14, 2013.  Gary, thanks so much for blogging with us today. 

Recommended Links:

Fun for Kids  http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/kids/hunting/index.html#main

Hunter takes deer with atlatl, 2011 http://mdc.mo.gov/newsroom/st-louis-county-hunter-becomes-first-state-take-deer-atlatl

Bees and Trees, Update

Flowering Purple Sage

Flowering Purple Sage

I had the good fortune to be in the Lower Pecos near Langtry, Texas (population 18), in the desert west of Del Rio and right on the Rio Grande, recently.  When I walked out of the house just as the sun was coming over the horizon, I heard the most astonishing thing: a purple sage bush was buzzing, humming, vibrating with unmistakable energy.

BeesandFlowersCommunicate050313When I went to inspect it closer, I discovered hundreds, nay thousands, of bees diving into the purple flowers sucking up nectar as fast as they could. There were two kinds of bees feasting on the plant: one a large black one, and the other much smaller and more golden color. I really don’t know much about bees at all, so cannot tell you the official names of these lively creatures. But I thought it was significant that there were TWO different kinds dining at the same time on the same flowers.

If there are any bee people out there, can you help me out?  I looked at the plant again towards sunset.  The

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

bees were gone, and the plant was quiet once again.

That evening we had dinner with rancher Jack Skiles, who has lived in Langtry most of his life. He commented on my blog about toothaches, and said he knew of another plant besides leatherstem that was good for aching teeth.  That plant is tickle tongue, also called prickly ash or Texas Hercules’ club.  He said if you chew the leaves, the mouth will go completely numb. He said he did not have one on his property, but knew where one was nearby. No doubt tickle tongue would have been a great addition to the Archaic Lower Pecos medicine kit I have written about in past posts.

Tickle Tongue

Tickle Tongue

For more information, see

http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Tickle-Tongue-Tree_vq3014.htm

Ow! Aching Teeth in the Lower Pecos Archaic

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus).  We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists.  Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.

Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994).  Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.”   This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).

Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”

You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful.  There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke.  This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out.  You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.

In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words.  We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”.  Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound.   Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.

Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.  Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which tooth-painmeans you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).

Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner.  The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.

People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark  however  ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013)  for the pain-killing

Lechugilla quids found in rock shelters

Lechuguilla quids found in rock shelters

properties of willow bark.)  Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013  for discussion of these plants.)

Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem,or Jaropha dioica, leafed out.

Leatherstem,or Jatropha dioica, leafed out

burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums.  Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.

Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal.  People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.

If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.

Red Tailed Hawks Take Flight

Watch the red tailed hawks in this video from Cornell Ornithological Labs from eggs to flight. After mama hawk lays three eggs, mom and pop steadily keep watch. When the fuzzy chicks are born, they take turns bringing them chunks of fresh meat for breakfast. As feathers develop, mom and pop begin to get that worried look common to the parents of  teenagers everywhere. Then, one day, the first one flies!