Death Valley National Park – Sand Dunes & Throwing an Atlatl

The last day of the tour, Sunday, January 30, 2022 was another busy, but interesting day. We started out stopping at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. There are several other sand dune areas in Death Valley National Park but these are the best known and easiest to get to. Although the highest dunes rise to only 100 feet, the dunes cover a vast area. This dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear and star-shaped. Polygon cracked clay of an ancient lakebed forms the floor. Sandboarding is permitted on these dunes but I did not see anyone with a board.

“For dunes to exist there must be a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand and a place for the sand to collect. The eroded canyons and washes provide plenty of sand, the wind always seems to blow (especially in the springtime), but there are few areas in the park where sand is “trapped” by geographic features such as mountains.” Death Valley National Park website

You can probably tell from the pictures that this sand is very, very fine. It was about 9:00 am when we were there and the sand was cold to the touch. I wouldn’t want to have been barefoot or been in sandals. I thought I managed to keep my tennis shoes fairly clean of sand and I didn’t track sand into the bus or the hotel on the bottom of my shoes but when I took my shoes off back in the hotel that evening my socks were covered with sand and I must have shaken a cup of sand out of each shoe. I put the shoes in a plastic bag in my luggage (I always carry a large zip-lock bag for such occasions) to get them home but still had to work to clean them of remaining sand.

It was a really sunny day, as were all the days we were in Death Valley. Even with sunglasses and a sunhat it was hard not to squint constantly. It was very hard to take a picture that truly shows the beauty and vastness of these dunes due to the sunlight and the whiteness of the sand.

Our guide was very interested in Native American culture. A friend of his had made an atlatl and Bryan wanted to show us how they worked and let us try them. I had seen one in the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas (see my posting of Sept. 23. 2019). I was fascinated with them then, trying to imagine how they worked. They were used in North and Central America as early as 8000 to 1000 BC. I’ve found references of similar spears throwers that were found in caves in France that date back 17,000 years. Before the atlatl the hunters threw spears at their prey. The atlatl allowed the hunter to stay a safe distance from their prey and provided additional thrust and velocity compared to spear throwing.

Above was the display I saw at the Museum of Native American History. The atlatl is in two parts: the atlatl that stays in the hunter’s hand and the spear shaft or “dart”. The spear shaft has a conical notch bored into the end that fits onto a spur (hook) on the end of the antler. The hunter holds the atlatl with the dart in position above the atlatl using thumb and index finger, with his body at 45 to 90 degrees in relation to the target with knees bent and feet shoulder width apart. The arm is raised, so the dart is close to the eye, level and in line with the target. The forward throw is like an overhand pitch, keeping the dart level. Then the dart is released. As with pitching, the follow through is important. A flip of the wrist at the end adds momentum and leverage. Using his entire body, not just his arm, will also increase the speed. Speeds of close to 80 mph have been recorded.

The atlatl is becoming popular as a new challenge to archers. Some states allow hunting with atlatls and there are national championships in the sport of atlatl throwing. Wonder if it will ever be an Olympic sport??

My attempt was laughable but it was fun to learn about and try something different – that is one reason why I travel with Road Scholar.

One comment

  1. Atta, Girl Pam. Fun descriptions of this place I’ve visited many times, and never once threw an atlatl!


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