The determined hunters, their weapons poised, surrounded the lone woolly mammoth in an open field. When the pursuers let loose, the whizz of 30 spears cutting through the air was quickly followed by the rapid-fire chunk, chunk, chunk of spear tips hitting wood.
This was no vast Pleistocene-era tundra or boreal forest, but a grassy field at a sprawling New York State park. The mammoth—a 7-foot-tall wooden silhouette with a “wool” coat of torn burlap strips and tusks of trimmed polyethylene foam wrapped in gauze. The faux animal’s stalkers were not hunters at all, but devotees of the curious sport of atlatl throwing. They gathered recently for contests during the annual confab of an eclectic group of men and women called the World Atlatl Association.
An atlatl is a short piece of wood with a handle and a spur, into which the hollowed out back end of a spear—atlatl throwers call it a dart—is set. The atlatl also features a small prong or peg on which the spear rests parallel to the atlatl until it is thrown. Fueled by the extra leverage, the atlatl propels the dart faster and further than a hand-thrown spear. The fastest throwers can get up to around 80 miles per hour.
“It’s basically throwing a stick with a stick,” says Douglas Bassett, president of the World Atlatl Association and a top-ranked player.
The makeshift mastodon was on hand at Letchworth State Park to test accuracy and distance-throwing skills. The 30 contestants started throwing 17 meters from the mammoth. An extra throw would go to those who hit the target in an area marking the “kill zone,” in the lower center of the animal’s wooden profile; missing the target completely disqualified throwers. The group retreated three meters after each throw until one thrower survived.
It wasn’t a surprise that Ben Struzynski, 22, (pictured above) was the last man standing. And it wasn’t the “Lucky Atlatl T-Shirt” he wore with a four-leaf clover on the back that tipped the odds in his favor.
Struzynski, who has been throwing for 15 years and competing for eight, is the 2018 Atlatl World Champion in the Men’s division for his victory in last year’s top accuracy contest. He hit the mammoth target dead center from 41 meters.
“I like the challenge it gives,” Struzynski, an Ogdensburg, Wisconsin, roofing foreman, says of atlatl throwing. “I’m a very competitive bowler, and if I make a mistake in bowling, I can still maybe throw a strike. With an atlatl, it takes a lot more precision to get it to the target. If you make a one-inch mistake at the 20-meter distance, you will miss the target. It takes quite a bit of accuracy and skill.”
The word atlatl comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec and means “water thrower” because it was used to spear fish and other animals. It is thousands of years old, precedes the bow and arrow, and was used by most Native American tribes. Few wooden atlatls survived the ages, though archaeologists have found atlatls made of antlers.
With ice patches melting in the Canadian Arctic, however, more organic atlatl parts are being discovered, says John Whittaker, PhD, anthropology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. These include complete wooden darts, the fletching, or feathers, used to stabilize the darts, and the rawhide and sinew for finger loops used to hold the atlatl.
“There’s also evidence of the transition from atlatls to bows and arrows,” Whittaker says.
The oldest atlatl pieces—upper Paleolithic ivory carvings used as atlatl hooks—have been found in Europe and are more than 15,000 years old, he adds.
Efficient hunting tools were essential to indigenous people. In the post-mastodon world, a family of four needed 50 deer a year to survive, says Susan Scherf, an educator who runs atlatl workshops at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut.
The cost of entry to the sport is relatively low. Bob Berg, owner of Thunderbird Atlatl in Candor, New York, sells atlatl kits for $45 and ready-made dart and atlatl sets for $90. “Basically what you need is a big bale of hay in your backyard and a paper plate as a target,” Berg says, “and you can have a lot of fun with it.”
Scherf says she found a way to make atlatl throwing even less expensive—by going back to the sport’s roots. “I threw a dart with an atlatl made from a fork in a tree branch and it worked almost as well as a carved atlatl,” she says.
How to Throw with an Atlatl
The throwing motion with an atlatl is the same as in throwing a ball, according to John Whittaker, PhD, an anthropology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. To throw with an atlatl, grasp it firmly and set the hook in the hollowed-out nock on the end of the dart. Raise your index finger and thumb to hold the dart in place, or rest it on the forked dart rest used on some modern atlatls. The throwing motion should be smooth and comfortable, as normal as throwing a snowball.