Written by Jehron Baggaley
Before its discovery and colonization, the inhabitants of the Americas had been separated from the rest of the human race for thousands of years. Save for the occasional interaction with, for example, some adventurous Vikings that made it all the way to modern-day Canada, there was no long-term trade or communication across the oceans. This means that weapons in the Americas developed in a completely different way than on the other continents where cultures had been constantly sharing inventions with each other, like bronze and iron. Today we’re going to take a look at three weapons from ancient America, what makes them unique, and what makes them deadly.
Sharper than Steel
Perhaps the most iconic weapon of pre-Columbian America is the macuahuitl. The macuahuitl is a flat, paddle weapon with several obsidian blades protruding from the wood. These weapons were used by the Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican civilizations, but the earliest known uses date as far back as a thousand years ago, predating even the Aztecs. Most of them were about a meter in length and had a relatively small handle.
But macuahuitls were also known for their surprising amount of variety in the design department. Some had blades down both sides of the wood, while other lighter versions had them on only one side. Another unique aspect was the amount of obsidian blades attached – there was no magic number, some had just 3 or 4 longer blades on each side, and others had over a dozen smaller pieces, resembling scales. The legendary two-handed macuahuitl was reportedly as tall as a man, though these were understandably much rarer than the smaller, one-handed versions. And let’s not forget the unbladed version used for sparring at a young age. The wood handles could be either plain or intricately carved and decorated.
So, what made the macuahuitl so effective that it was used for hundreds of years and even scared the Spanish when they arrived? Firstly, its extremely portable. The Aztecs didn’t have beasts of labor, so going to war meant marching hundreds of kilometers while carrying your own equipment. The macuahuitl was light, making it easy for each soldier to carry his own along with a small shield, and was still able to be swung at a decent speed, making it ideal for the chaos of jungle warfare. It’s also important to keep in mind that human sacrifice was a large part of Aztec culture, and prisoners of war were common sacrifices. Spaces between blades limits the extent of damage done in a single swipe, and the flat side of the wood paddle can be used to knock someone unconscious instead of killing them if needed.
The macuahuitl was also fairly cheap to produce, and the Aztec empire had tens of thousands stored in case of war.
Now onto the star of the show – the macuahuitl’s obsidian blades. Metal working was quite rare in the Americas and was mostly for ornamental purposes like jewelry. So apart from a select few made from meteoric iron, metal weapons were quite rare. In the place of metal, obsidian made a great substitute, and in some respects, was even better.
Obsidian forms when lava quickly cools in contact with water, leaving large deposits after volcanic events. The Aztecs quarried their obsidian from these deposits and were experts at “knapping”. Put briefly, knapping is a process by which a skilled worker strikes the obsidian with a rock or a hammer-like object, chipping and cleaving it into a shape that can be formed into a sharp blade. Knapping techniques developed on every continent – but Aztec knapping was the most advanced in the entire world. Their obsidian was worked twice – the first time was at the quarry where large blocks were chipped into a smaller piece called a blank, getting rid of the unusable or extra material and only shipping back the essentials. This smaller piece was then transported to a knapper who would finish sharpening the blade and attaching it to wood, either on a macuahuitl, spear, or an arrowhead.
Obsidian has its pros and cons as a blade. Its main disadvantage is that it can’t be formed into a long blade like you would expect on an average sword- it’s simply too brittle and the blade would snap under pressure. This is why obsidian weapons generally feature several smaller blades and not one long edge. But its advantage is that it’s the sharpest known material on earth, even sharper than a steel scalpel. It’s commonly said that the edge of an obsidian blade can be sharpened down to the width of a single atom, but this would be nearly impossible to achieve with regular chipping. The blade can however be sharpened to just a few nanometers in width by an experienced knapper.
Aztec obsidian was so sharp that the Spanish who encountered it were terrified by its lacerating potential. Conquistadors wrote about them repeatedly throughout their conquests, claiming that it was sharp enough to decapitate not only a man, but a horse. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote:
“Pedro de Morón was a very good horseman, and as he charged with three other horsemen into the ranks of the enemy the Indians seized hold of his lance and he was not able to drag it away, and others gave him cuts with their broadswords, and wounded him badly, and then they slashed at the mare, and cut her head off at the neck so that it hung by the skin, and she fell dead.”
Another account from conquistador Fransisco de Aguilar reads:
“One Indian at a single stroke cut open the whole neck of Cristóbal de Olid’s horse, killing the horse”
Modern anthropologists believe that the ability to behead a horse in one swing is likely an exaggeration, but the bleeding that an obsidian blade could cause is still serious. In fact, Terry Schappert, Green Beret and martial artist, found this out the hard way when he cut the back of his left leg while swinging a macuahuitl on the History Channel’s show Warriors.
Lethal from a Distance
Obsidian weapons like the macuahuitl are a great weapon for battle but hunting with them is understandably difficult. To efficiently hunt quick prey like deer, a ranged weapon is a must, and the ancient Americas had plenty to choose from.
It’s well known that bows and arrows were one of the most commons weapons among native Americans, both for warfare and for hunting. They were likely introduced several thousand years ago from Siberian nomads that crossed the Bering strait, and slowly spread throughout the continent. But even before the bow was introduced, native Americans had mastered a different weapon to attack from a distance – the atlatl.
The atlatl is a device designed to accurately launch a spear or dart further than the human arm can throw it. The design is quite simple: a slightly curved rod with a hook on one end attaches into a notch on the bottom of a spear’s shaft. This creates a basic lever with joints between the hunter’s arm, the atlatl, and the spear. When the hunter’s arm flings forward, the leverage created from these points is capable of thrusting the projectile forward at a deadly 150 kilometers per hour, or 93 miles per hour.
Because of its simple design, there was a lot of variation between atlatls. Normally, they were around half a meter in length, made from slightly curved wood or bone, and were commonly decorated or carved. Some atlatls even featured a stone or wooden weight which has puzzled anthropologists as it doesn’t seem to add force to the throw, though there is some speculation that it stabilizes the user’s aim.
Because of the clever use of leverage, atlatls don’t require much strength to use. American Anthropologist John Whittaker says that because the weapon requires skill instead of strength, it leveled the playing ground and allowed women to participate in hunting, making it a social tool as well as a hunting one.
The word atlatl comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but they in fact were used all around the world. There is even some speculation that a European man from 42000 years ago used an atlatl because of the arthritis found in his elbow that was common with the weapon’s usage. But the weapon is especially significant in the history of the Americas because while the rest of the world was moving on to bows and never looking back, atlatls never went out of style with Native Americans, and were even still being used alongside bows when European explorers arrived.
Almost every major American civilization used them, from Alaska all the way to the Andes, and the earliest known usage on the continent dates to around 4000 years ago. This is inferred from a dart fragment discovered in the Yukon Ice Patches. Atlatls were featured in artwork from the American southwest in the Basketmaker culture, and were an also important part of imagery in Teotihuacan, where a prominent leader named Spearthrower Owl is depicted with his atlatl in stone carvings.
Moving south, in the Amazon atlatls were used not only for hunting game on land, but, surprisingly, also for fishing. Some cultures were so good with atlatls that they even preferred them to bows, sometimes tipping their spearheads with poison for good measure.
In the Andes mountains however, atlatls were so central to the Moche culture that they even took on a religious significance. An estolica is the Spanish word for an atlatl from the Andes that has been designed for ornamental use instead of a weapon. These ceremonial atlatls were almost twice as long as a normal one, and were intricately carved, their handles engraved with stories and images of deities and animals. At one excavation in Peru, a mummy known as the Lady of Cao was found with 23 of these ritual atlatls at her feet, each of which depicted various birds. These were likely buried with her to show that in life she was a fearsome warrior.
Unfortunately, atlatl use declined sharply after European nations began colonizing the Americas. The Aztecs used them to fight back against their new enemies, and the launched spears sometimes had enough force to even penetrate some chainmail armor but were ultimately no match for new age warfare.
But good news is that recent times have seen an effort to revive and preserve the legacy of the atlatl. Several US states legalized using them to hunt wildlife such as deer or turkey, and in 1987 the World Atlatl Association was formed, which organizes atlatl competitions at American universities. Throws as far as 260 meters have been recorded at some of these competitions, seriously showcasing just how lethal they can be.
Death from a Breath
Our last featured native American weapon is the blow gun. Blow guns have been seen in cultures in Southeast Asia and western Europe, but perhaps the most well-known examples are from the Americas. Lots of cultures in the Americas turned their breath into a lethal weapon, but a few in particular stand out.
First up – the Cherokee. The Cherokee Indians are a tribe from the southeastern United States and are well-known for their skilled crafting of blow guns, as well as their stealthy hunting tactics with them. A traditional Cherokee blow gun is made with rivercane Arundinari gigantea – the only bamboo native to North America. Techniques passed through generations involve using flint or a hot coal to clean out the bamboo chute, after which the joints and rough spots are smoothed out and straightened. The gun is usually between 2 and 3 meters long. After the cane is straightened and dried, a wooden dart with a fur end is inserted, this fur is what creates the seal that channels all the force from the lungs onto the dart, propelling it forward. With these bamboo snipers, the Cherokee mastered the art of silently stalking their game, which was mainly rabbits and other small animals, and fired their blow darts with impressive accuracy. With favorable wind, an experienced shooter can nail a target up to 30 meters away.
In other cultures, though, blowpipe weapons had an added layer of lethality – poison. Some tribes tipped their darts with Curare, which is a generic term for poison found in a few plants native to South America. Curare causes muscle paralysis, which quickly leads to asphyxiation. Another plant, the sandbox tree, produces a poison that the natives of the Caribbean on their darts.
Animals also provided a source of poison. In South America, poison dart frogs were an excellent source, some frogs had to be roasted over a fire to extract enough poison for a dart, but some species have so much poison that just dipping the dart into its back is sufficient. Just don’t accidentally touch the frog while you’re extracting the poison, the golden poison dart frog has enough poison on its skin to kill 10 humans.
There is some debate about the use of poisonous darts in North America, but some tribes, such as the Chocktaw, have an oral history of using poison in the past. There are also some claims that in the southwest United States, poison was taken from gila monsters, one of the only 2 venomous lizards on earth. Other tribes claim that rattlesnakes poison was used by agitating the snake until it bit a prepared animal liver, which would then house the rattlesnake’s venom until a dart was dipped into it.
Overall, blowguns were extremely effective for hunting and for battle. Regular wooden darts, like those mentioned from the long Cherokee blowguns, are highly effective at taking out rabbits and birds, and poisonous darts in other tribes made it easier to take out larger animals that might otherwise be unbothered by a thin wooden dart. Today, blowguns are classified as a weapon and prohibited in many countries, except, as you might guess, in the United States.
Though they’re obviously inferior to modern weapons, blowguns have left a strong legacy in the Americas and around the world. Competitive blowgun shooting is a popular sport in many countries and even has a growing movement to become a future Olympic sport. One suggestion to standardize the rules would be based on none other than the Cherokee rules for Blowgun Competition, where shooters attempt to hit targets in sets of 3 that are further and further away as they progress through the rounds. So don’t be surprised if we see some traditional Native American blowguns in the Olympics in the coming years.