Atlatl: Not Just for Cavemen
at•lat•l aht-laht-l / noun
Although the name is Aztec for “spear thrower,” the atlatl is a ubiquitous part of the world’s ancient hunting regime. Versions of the simple, yet refined spear launching device existed on virtually every continent (besides Antarctica, maybe) and were the weapons of choice around 20,000 years ago, used to hunt everything from fish to mega-sized herbivores.
That’s because the launcher- a weighted arm extension that multiplies the speed of a projectile spear 200 fold- is very accurate, and it hits hard, especially when pitched like an overhand tennis shot.
And who would have thought, with the absence of mammoths and megadons lumbering around the countryside in the last several millennia, that the spear throwing sport would still be relevant today.
Not only is it relevant, says bow and arrow maker and atlatl enthusiast Ken Wee, but it’s an unbelievable amount of fun.
Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Ken always had a knack for hunting tools and survival methods, but he got into atlatl-ing over 20 years ago when he heard about 78-year-old Boulder resident Leni Clubb- founder of the World Atlatl Association– winning a national atlatl championship.
Call her a “paleo-entrepreneur” if you want, but Leni, now 101 years old and still living in Boulder, is the pioneer of reintroducing the atlatl into modernity by incorporating it into the Colorado Archaeological Society. Leni- whose daughter Elizabeth English started the Boulder Moondance Film Festival in 1999- is prime example that sometimes in order to make something relevant for the future, you have to look to the past.
And although there are only an estimated couple hundred dedicated atlatlists in the entire world, their gatherings incorporate spear-throwing activities both ancient and contemporary. Ken, a regular attendee to such get-togethers, has won events at the Boulder Atlatl Contest in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2000.
“We’re talking about throwing at nine-inch circle from 60 feet away and hitting it 9 out of 10 times,” says Ken, who also teaches local atlatl courses, sometimes with the non-profit Laughing Coyote, a group that helps re-establish human connections with the earth.
But accuracy isn’t the only atlatl category worth boasting about. On July 15th, 1995, an engineer named David Engvall shattered the Guinness World Record for the longest thrown atlatl (previously set by Wayne Brian two years prior with a throw of 660 feet) at DeLaney Farm in Aurora, Colorado with a throw that careered 848.5 feet.
“You start with a good piece of bamboo and wrap the ends,” says Garden Green Vest, Aaron Tye, who has been making his own bows and arrows as a hobby for years. “It’s a lot like (making a bow and arrow), just on a larger scale.”The Colorado area is an atlatl-ing focal point, and Ken says at least 4 or 5 world champions have fashioned their atlatls with supplies from McGuckin Hardware– with items like bamboo from the Garden Department, dowels and cord from Builder’s Hardware Department, and feathers from the fly-fishing aisle in the Sporting Goods department.
“There’s a lot of stuff you can use at McGuckin’s for survival,” adds Ken, who’s getting ready to attend a 25-year anniversary celebration for his friend Robin Blankenship’s Earth Knack outdoor survival school, but first needs to make a trip through his favorite hardware store to pick up some long sturdy canes of bamboo.
To see the atlatl in action and understand a bit of the physics behind it, watch the video below. Once you’ve seen it, head over to Boulder’s Favorite Everything Store and start making your own atlatl!