Maya Weapons: The Atlatl and Obsidian Dart

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The Maya utilized a Stone Age weapon called the Atlatl that matched Spaniard armor.

Even though the Maya had and utilized missile technology, such as bows and arrows, the atlatl, blowguns and spear, most combat occurred at close range with hand to hand weapons. Missile weapons were not heavily relied upon because the goal was not to kill your enemy, but capture him if you could (to be later sacrificed to the gods).

Weapons that were used by the Maya were crafted mostly from materials such as obsidian and chert, instead of metal. Metal was known, but not yet found to be useful in the region in lieu of other materials such as obsidian.


The obsidian they used was very, very sharp but also very brittle as well. The Maya would knap pieces of chert or obsidian into projectile points and then attach them to the the ends of their atlatl darts, spear shafts, or arrows. This was the dominant technology in the entire Mesoamerican region.


When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived with their iron armor and arms, the Maya weren’t totally defenseless against them. The warrior’s weapon of choice against the armored Spaniards was the spear throwing atlatl.

Weapon Masters- Atlatl vs. Steel Armor.
Weapon Masters- Atlatl vs. Steel Armor.

An atlatl (or ahtlatl) was a tool that used leverage to achieve greater velocity in dart or spear throwing. It consists of a shaft with a cupped or spurred end that supports the butt of a dart or spear in order to propel it.

The dart used, called a “yaomitl” in Mayan, is much more like an arrow in design than the darts that were used by early Eurasians. Like an arrow, it had flexible fletching at the end of the dart to stabilize its flight through the air. The darts were made in variety lengths, depending on its usage.


The atlatl was relatively simple to use.

It is held in one hand and gripped near the end of the tool farthest from the cup. A dart or short spear butt is set in the end of the cup, aligned with the tool. The dart is then thrown by the swinging action of the upper arm and wrist working together with the atlatl acts as a lever.

The atlatl becomes a low-mass and fast-moving extension of the throwing arm with the increased length of the lever. The lever’s extra length allowed the dart or spear thrower to increase force of energy to the spear or dart over a greater distance. This increased the energy of thrust force and ultimately propelled the dart or spear at higher speeds. This made the weapon even deadlier and more effective.

atlatl throwing
The ancient art of atlatl throwing.

While the earliest archaeological evidence is around 25,000 years old, it is believed that the atlatl has been in use for over 40,000 years. About the time when paleoindians crossed into Beringia. The simplicity and effectiveness of this weapon had allowed these early humans to hunt Ice Age megafauna such as the Mammoth and other large game.

Eventually the development of the bow supplanted the atlatl as the weapon of choice in most of Mesoamerica. The bow was more compact and easier to carry, plus it was a much quieter weapon that allowed hunting prey easier.


Additionally when the megafauna animals ceased to exist, the smaller mammals did not require the penetrative power delivered by the atlatl to bring them down.

It wasn’t until the 16th Century, when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded that the Aztecs had re-adopted using the atlatl, Hand thrown spear and arrows fired by bows were not meeting their warfighting needs. They needed the atlatl with its increased power to penetrate the Spaniard’s armor.

The Mesoamericans weren’t able to compete against the Spaniard’s cannon and firearms, but there were many a conquistador who were surprised to have an armor-piercing obsidian tipped dart pass completely through their steel breastplates. Piercing them through both front and back plates of the steel armor they had worn.

Atlatl throwing Aztec, Codex Becker.
Atlatl throwing Aztec, Codex Becker.

The Maya and other Mesoamerican people were able to fight the Spanish conquistadors. It required the Spaniards to use various Mesoamerican allies to help defeat the Maya. In a sense, the Spanish used the Maya to fight the Maya. Employing rival clans against each other.

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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