Atlatl and dart in hand, the loincloth-clad hunter quietly crept through the dense ferns, inching ever closer to a lone mastodon lagging behind the rest of its herd. His sinewy muscles tensed as he firmly nocked the end of the six-foot-long dart to the wolf-tooth point embedded in the end of his atlatl. Taking careful aim, he swung the atlatl, sending the deadly shaft hurtling to the heart of the beast with a single killing blow.
"Check out that shot!" said my jeans-and-T-shirt-clad husband, waking me out of my reverie. He had just sunk an atlatl-thrown dart deep into the "lungs" of the deer-shaped target at the Chelsea Rod & Gun Club — pretty impressive for a first-time atlatlist. The members of the Michigan Atlatl Association had encouraged him, though a beginner, to participate in the Michigan Atlatl Championship that day.
It was nice to know that he would have made a fine caveman. Before there were bows and arrows, skill in using a spear-thrower, or atlatl, was essential to the survival of our Paleolithic ancestors. From the mastodon hunters of Europe, right up to the modern day aborigines of Australia, atlatls have been used worldwide to increase the power and the range of feathered darts far beyond what a simple hand-chucked spear could do.
Following the competitors on the meandering dirt path through a lovely wooded area, I was startled to see a bear rearing up through the trees, only to realize that it was one of the thirty lifelike 3-D targets on the course!
All the men, women, and children of the MAA take pride in handcrafting their own atlatls and darts and are happy to share their knowledge of weapons and techniques with anyone willing to learn. One competitor knelt to take aim at a downhill target, his weapon amusingly counterbalanced by the cigar he was holding in his outstretched left arm. Another threw with such ease, it was as if he were playing darts at a bar. Nine-year-old Harold Eyster masterfully wielded a colorfully painted atlatl with carved finger grooves. He made it look easy, winning the youth division; his thirteen-year-old brother, Teddy, took first place overall.
My husband borrowed an atlatl that had woven finger loops and threw as though pitching a baseball, and strained his shoulder in the process. Rotator cuff injuries are common among atlatlists; people tend to throw with more force than necessary. The secret lies in the proper flick of the wrist. For my own first attempt I held a rustic atlatl made of a simple stick with a whittled peg on the end in the "hammer" grip. It was challenging to keep the six-foot-long dart firmly nocked and balanced with only two fingers. Letting it fly, I missed the target by a mile. If I ever get to travel back in time, I guess I'll stick with gathering roots and leave the big game to the champions of the MAA.
The 2005 Michigan Atlatl Championship is at the Chelsea Rod & Gun Club on Sunday, September 25.
[Review published September 2005]