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Native American parents crafted mini weapons to teach their children vital life skills. Source: mmilliman /Adobe Stock

Mini Weapons Taught Children Survival Skills in Oregon

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Researchers believe that some weapons found at the Par-Tee site in Oregon, USA were purposely made for little hands to train children and youth life skills. These weapons for children were carefully crafted to teach the future adults how to survive.

The researchers have found a variety of sizes of atlatls (ancient dart-throwing weapons) among the artifacts recovered from the site inhabited by Native Americans from 100-800 AD. They believe that the weapons were made to specifically fit the hands of the users. It seems that some of the users were children.

A reconstruction of a Par-Tee atlatl. (illustration by Emily Hull)

A reconstruction of a Par-Tee atlatl. (illustration by Emily Hull)

Crafting Mini Weapons to Teach Life Skills

Robert Losey, professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta and lead author in the study published in Antiquity, said in a press release, “Basically, they scaled-down their atlatls so they were more easily usable is small hands. This helped children master the use of these weapons.”

And it was no simple task creating the weapons either; Professor Losey explained to Ancient Origins:

“Crafting these atlatls was clearly done by highly-skilled people. They would have been very difficult to make—people were carving them from whale bone with stone tools. The atlatls are very symmetrical and lightly built. My guess is that these were made by adults highly skilled in carving and atlatl use. The smaller ones may well have been made by adult family members for their children.”

Losey also said in the press release, “When I held the smaller atlatl handles in my own hands it was obvious they were too small for adult hands.” Even with making allowances for differences in sex, body mass, and height, the researchers say that clearly the smaller atlatls they found were made for children.

Atlatl hand grips recovered from Par-Tee, highlighting the difference in size between some of the objects. (Losey et al.)

Atlatl hand grips recovered from Par-Tee, highlighting the difference in size between some of the objects. (Losey et al.)

A Key to Survival

The researchers believe the reason why adults would have gone to such lengths to create special weapons for children was a practical one – kids needed to learn how to hunt . And before they had bows and arrows the Native Americans of Par-Tee had atlatls. That means that becoming skilled with using the weapons was important for hunting and therefore survival.

It seems the environment was full of hunting options if a person became adept at using an atlatl , as Losey told Ancient Origins:

“The animals hunted with these atlatls were probably quite diverse. People at the site hunted elk and deer, both of which could have been taken using atlatls. Most of the animals at the site though are aquatic—seals, sea lions, otters, and many different kinds of birds. Any of these animals could have been hunted with the atlatls.”

3D Rendering of a prehistoric Native American hunter wearing furs and carrying an atlatl and spear as he stalks a bison in a snow covered valley in the Rocky Mountains. (Daniel /Adobe Stock)

3D Rendering of a prehistoric Native American hunter wearing furs and carrying an atlatl and spear as he stalks a bison in a snow covered valley in the Rocky Mountains. ( Daniel /Adobe Stock)

As training objects, the small atlatls “provide some of the earliest archaeological evidence of Native American childhood in the region, but also open a window into the way ancient people trained their children in essential life skills,” according to the researchers.

Artifacts from the Par-Tee Site

The Par-Tee site is located on the northern Oregon Coast. Native American Chinookan- and Salish-speaking populations used to call it home. It was excavated in the 1960s and 70s, but the huge number of artifacts recovered from the shell midden site have mostly been forgotten since then.

Painting by Paul Kane showing a Chinookan child having its head flattened and an adult after the process. (Public Domain)

Painting by Paul Kane showing a Chinookan child having its head flattened and an adult after the process. ( Public Domain )

To give you an idea of the immensity of the collection, excavators unearthed over 7,000 tools, as well as burials and hearths, in and around the shell midden. Of the unanalyzed artifacts, more than 90 are related to atlatls. These include fragments that were carved from whale bone and weights that would have been used to counterbalance the atlatl and increase a dart’s force .

And even a child’s smaller atlatl has power behind it – the press release notes that “Previous experiments using small atlatls have found that they can effectively propel a dart around 30 metres [98.43 ft.].” These atlatls probably weren’t toys, they were functional weapons.

Atlatl spear throwing. A sixth-grader from the Anchorage-area learning to use an atlatl at Campbell Creek Science Center under the supervision of archaeologist Robert King. (Gleason the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska/ CC BY 2.0)

Atlatl spear throwing. A sixth-grader from the Anchorage-area learning to use an atlatl at Campbell Creek Science Center under the supervision of archaeologist Robert King. (Gleason the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska/ CC BY 2.0 )

Losey told Ancient Origins it would be worthwhile to return to Par-Tee in the future to see what else is under the soil, “but only after the existing collections have been thoroughly analyzed. The existing collections from the site are huge and largely unpublished. It does not seem wise to do more work at the site until this material is well documented.”

And he was also sure to point out that “Most importantly, more work at the site should only be done if the area’s Native American groups are in support of the work and find it useful.”

Signs of Forgotten Youth

The researchers also remind us that evidence of how a society prepared a child for adult life is not easily noticed or explored in the archaeological record. As Losey said to Ancient Origins:

“How people acquire the essential skills they need to live their lives often goes unexamined in archaeology. This project really focuses on how skill with an atlatl was built around 2000 years ago, which involved equipment scaling—reducing down the sizes of things so that children can handle them. This strategy is used today in many sports, but appears to have a very deep history.”

This broader view makes the current study even more significant.

Top Image: Native American parents crafted mini weapons to teach their children vital life skills. Source: mmilliman /Adobe Stock

By Alicia McDermott

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