In ancient times, some Native American groups taught their children how to fight and hunt using miniature versions of the popular throwing weapon.
More than a thousand years ago, the Chinukano-i Salish - Native Americans lived on the northern coast of Oregon near the Columbia River estuary, where they fished and hunted, and created household tools and weapons.
In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists unearthed this area known as the par-Tee shell midden site, which is filled with piles of sea shells and various sediments gathered in a heap called the midden.
These previous finds included burials, hearths, and about 7,000 instruments.
In the new study, a team of scientists examined more than 90 of these previously unanalyzed artifacts, which are fragments of an ancient weapon called the atlatl.
Before the appearance of the bow and arrow, the atlatl was a throwing weapon. Made from whale bones, it had a grip on one end and a dart hook on the other. Weapons were the key to the survival of these groups, and people who knew how to use them had significant advantages.
"The ability to effectively operate such a weapon was a critical skill, but not easy to learn," the researchers write.
"Experienced Atlatlom users would likely have more success in hunting than those less skilled, resulting in nutritional and social benefits for themselves and their community."
Moreover, people who could use weapons effectively were probably more successful in war and self-defense.
The team found that the weapons, especially the hilts, varied greatly in size; the largest was 166% more than the smallest. Since a person's gender, body weight and height are only 10% to 15% of the difference in the size of the palm of an adult, the researchers concluded that small arms were used to educate children.
"Basically, they've scaled down their atlatlles to make them easier to use in small hands," lead author Robert Moose, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, said in a statement. In this way, the children were taught how to use and wield weapons, he added.