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Creation 40(4):42–43, October 2018

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The atlatl (woomera) and the heron’s neck

Early biomimicry on display?

by and

Heron, fishing (a) erect posture; searching for prey, (b) crouching, ready to strike, (c) neck fully extended, entering water, (d) maximum splash, head beginning to retract, (e) success—dinner is served.

When archaeologists find an atlatl—as they have done in north Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia—they quickly recognize it as a tool designed to aid spear-throwing. Aztec warriors used the device to powerfully propel spears through the body armour of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century; the word atlatl in fact comes from the Nahautl language spoken by the Aztecs.

Australian Aboriginals know it as the woomera.1

Atlatls and woomeras generally consist of a shaft or board about 60–90 cm (2–3 ft) long, with one end designed to be gripped by the warrior/hunter and the other end consisting of a cup or hook to accommodate the butt end of a spear or long dart. They dramatically increase the leverage of the throwing arm and wrist, enabling the spear or dart to be propelled faster and further than normally possible—up to 150 km per hour (93 mph), and 200 metres (220 yards). A similar principle can be seen in the modern moulded plastic ‘ball-thrower’ shafts used by dog owners to fling tennis balls for their dogs to fetch.

While no-one knows for sure how the atlatl/woomera originated, there are intriguing similarities between atlatl-assisted spear throwing and the way herons use their neck when hunting. Some have therefore speculated that the idea came from watching herons hunting.2 

That is, from observing how herons use their renowned ‘crook-neck’ posture to make sudden and lethal lunges at their prey (primarily fish, but also including crabs, amphibians, and rodents)—the heron’s famous ‘bill stab’. This is a downward or lateral strike involving fast, directed movement of the head and neck while the body remains still.3

Heron necks have 20–21 cervical vertebrae, the fifth through seventh having the articulation that gives their neck its characteristic kink.4 The bill stab is enabled by a unique feature that involves the sixth cervical vertebra. That vertebra is elongated, and the arrangement of the muscular connections to the seventh vertebra forms an elastic hinge. It is in essence a muscle-powered hinge, because along with the arrangement of other neck muscles, it allows herons to draw their neck into an ‘S’-shape, and then, ‘like lightning’, thrust the head and bill forward at very high speed to strike and capture prey.

© alamy.comAborigine-Spear
An Aboriginal Australian using a woomera.

And so we see that the action and function of the sixth vertebra of a heron’s neck is akin to that of the atlatl/woomera, in concert with the human wrist. The extra leverage and speed they each provide contribute to the same end: fast and accurate propulsion of a sharp projectile, for the purpose of hunting prey. No-one would say that the atlatl/woomera was not designed, so why not also the heron’s distinctive neck, with all its design parallels (and more)?

The Bible tells us that the Designer of all things was God, Creator of the heavens and the earth—a world in which birds originally did not eat fish, frogs, or mice (Genesis 1:30). In His foreknowledge of the Fall, God evidently provided the heron at Creation what it would subsequently need for its transition to carnivory in a cursed and fallen world5—and spectacularly so, given the heron’s superbly efficient neck design.

Posted on homepage: 8 August 2018

References and notes

  1. The word was very aptly adopted as a name for the Australian township of Woomera and its nearby Rocket Range—site of launching and testing long-range missiles after WW2. Return to text.
  2. Peters, P., and Sanson, G., Is an aboriginal woomera like a heron’s neck? paperbarkwriter.com, 16 May 2015. Return to text.
  3. Kushlan, J.A., The terminology of courtship, nesting, feeding and maintenance in herons [online], heronconservation.org, 2011. Return to text.
  4. Herons and Bitterns (Ardeidae), encyclopedia.com, 2004. Return to text.
  5. For discussion of the various alternatives (and different ones may have been employed for different kinds of creatures) see chapter 6 “How did bad things come about?” of The Creation Answers Book, creation.com/cab6. Return to text.

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