Back in the 1960s, archaeologists discovered a trove of ancient artifacts along the northern coast of Oregon, an area once occupied by Chinookan- and Salish-speaking populations. The site, known as Par-Tee, boasted a shell midden—or sizable heap of shells, bones, utensils and other miscellaneous objects—that contained some 7,000 tools dated to between 100 and 800 A.D. Few of these relics have ever been studied.
Robert Losey and Emily Hull, both researchers at Canada’s University of Alberta, recently decided to take a closer look at some of the Par-Tee artifacts, many of which are housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. They focused their attention on atlatls, tools (made from whalebone in this case) that let ancient humans propel spears and darts with increased accuracy, and noticed that some of these implements were quite small—too small, in fact, to have been used by adults.
Writing in the journal Antiquity, the researchers suggest that these tools were “crafted specifically to fit the hands of children.”
From an early age, in other words, ancient Native Americans were learning how to hunt and fight.
Before the advent of the bow and arrow, atlatls were one of the most ubiquitous means of hurling projectiles. These devices, which had a grip at one end and a hook for a dart at the other, helped increase the range and force of a weapon. But they weren’t easy to use. Operators had to apply torque as the dart was released from the hand, and because atlatls were not as accurate as bows, hunting with the instrument likely required the coordination of multiple individuals.
“The ability to operate such weapons effectively was a critical skill, but not a simple one to master,” the study authors write. “Proficient atlatl users probably would have had greater success in hunting than those less skilled with the atlatl, resulting in dietary and social advantages for themselves and their community. Such individuals might also be more successful in warfare and self-defence.”
It makes sense, therefore, that atlatl training started young among the people who dwelled along Oregon’s coast. When the researchers examined the Par-Tee haul, they found that the largest atlatl was 166 times bigger than the smallest one—a difference too large to be explained by normal hand size variation among adults, or between men and women, according to the study authors. The mini atlatls thus offer compelling evidence that the tools were deliberately scaled down for little hands.
“You want to learn how to use these things as soon as you can,” Losey tells Isaac Schultz of Atlas Obscura. “Surely, people started using [atlatls] in childhood, so by the time you’re physically an adult you’re already good at it.”
These new insights are particularly significant because archaeologists have only recently turned their attention to the study of children’s roles as contributing members of ancient societies; Jane Eva Baxter, an archaeologist at Chicago’s DePaul University, tells Colin Barras of Science that experts began to seriously consider the subject about 20 years ago.
Children’s toys, and even baby bottles, have been found at various sites around the world. But miniaturized instruments like the small atlatls are unique because they straddle the boundary between work and play.
“It’s a toy, it’s a training tool, and it’s a way of learning to work,” says Baxter to Schultz.
Hunting and fighting weren’t the only essential components of life in ancient North America: Weaving, woodworking and canoeing were also complex tasks that may have required small training equipment for little humans.
“[E]vidence of this should be visible in other Northwest Coast artefacts,” the study authors write, “if we are willing to search for it.”