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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to artifacts

Spears and Atlatls, New Guinea Weapons

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Figure 1: Three spear heads, the shafts are 6 to 8 feet long (2 to 2.5 meters).

[Detail of three spear heads from New Guinea: 19k]

[Two spear throwers from the Blackwater River: 6k]

Figure 2: Two spear throwers from the Blackwater River, ESP, PNG. The left thumb guide shows a fight between two black killer cockatoos. The right one is a shrimp.

Hunting spears (spia in tok pisin) and atlatls (spear throwers) are still made and used everyday in New Guinea. We were buying artifacts on a hot, muddy bar on the Blackwater River in 1997. In the distance, across the mile or so of mud flat that separates the village from the river in the dry season, a man practiced with his spears and atlatl. His small sons chased after the spears and brought them back.

A spear is fitted into the hollow shaft of the bamboo atlatl. The thumb guide holds the spear in place until it is thrown. The atlatl acts like an extension of the man's arm when he throws and catapults the spear for a much greater distance with a stronger force. The spear throwers are about 2 to 3+ feet long (60 to 100 cm). The thumb guides can be quite elaborately decorated with totemic clan motifs.

[Detail of atlatl thumb guide in the shape of a rooster: 5k]

Figure 3: Detail of spear thrower thumb guide in the shape of a rooster from the Blackwater River, ESP, PNG.

Spears and spearheads are often made from the heart of the black palm tree. This wood is strong, yet flexible. The most common style is a long piece of wood tapered to a single, sharp point. Length is around 6 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters). The shafts are usually decorated in some way ranging from simple painted stripes to elaborately carved clan figures with complex string and human hair wrappings and feather tassels. Spears used for war or for ceremony are meant to intimidate the enemy, human or spiritual, just by their sheer flamboyance.

[Mt. Hagen warrior with barbed spear: 21k]

Figure 4: Mt. Hagen warrior with barbed spear, Mt. Hagen Show, PNG.

Hunting parties of men armed with spears go into the jungle with their dogs and nets after wild pig. Ducks are speared in the round water lakes with the aid of atlatls. Game is also hunted with shotguns. There are usually a few men in each village with gun permits, but it's difficult to buy shells, so every shell is precious. Three-pronged spears are used for fish. Spears are also used in raids against enemy villages.

A few years ago our friend, Lesley Martin, was driving back into Wewak on the Maprik Road. It's a rutted, jungle road for most of the way with some steep hills. She was just starting the pickup truck up one of these hills when she noticed a man at the top. He turned deliberately so that she could see that he held a shotgun.

She put her foot on the gas and yelled to her men in the back, "Duck!" They looked up the hill and yelled back to her, "No misis, no duck, gun!"

Luckily, the man didn't shoot. He may not have even had any shells, but hoped that he could bluff someone into stopping.

It's the same area where some men tried to steal spears as we pulled away by putting their hands on the shafts sticking out the back and letting the truck do the work. When Ron caught them, they just let go, shrugged their shoulders and grinned, "Traim, tasol." (Try, that's all.)


[Contemporary shield painted with gold and black store paint. The barbed spears are the same as the one carried by the Mt. Hagen warrior: 16k]

Figure 5: Contemporary New Guinea Highlands shield with eagle clutching crossed barbed spears.

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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/