Last week I was at Meadowcroft, which many people know is a historic colonial era village and archaeological site in southwestern Pennsylvania. The historic buildings and reenactments are all extremely well done and informative, but none of that was why I was really there.
The first people to live in and around Meadowcroft (and southwestern PA) were groups of hunter-gatherers who traveled seasonally following their prey and collecting wild and semi-domesticated plants. Such groups existed (still exist some places) around the world and one of the tools which developed in nearly all of those cultures was the spear. Spears are great; they allow you to keep the dangerous wild animals far away from your face while they’re still alive and thrashing around with their horns,antlers,teeth, and claws. Then when you have them nice and dead you can carry the animal(s) back to your fire tied to the spear where you can proceed to cook them and stuff the tasty parts into your face. Spears are great handheld weapons. But when it comes to throwing even the most skillful and strong hunter would only have been able to chuck one about 30-40 yards; the human arm can only do so much.
That’s why all around the world groups of hunters in the time before written history, the internet, or modern notions of personal hygiene invented these.
Atlatls are spear throwing tools. A hunter could double or triple his range by notching the blunt end of the spear into the atlatl hook and using the atlatl as a lever to push the spear. This allowed hunters to keep the nasty thrashing murderous animals up to 100 yards away until they were full of spears and could be safely approached, cut open and their tasty organs devoured raw.
This is why I went to Meadowcroft! (For the atlatls, not the raw organs). Meadowcroft hosted an atlatl throwing competition and they allowed amateurs (me) to try for free. I was awful, but still better than the other amateurs I saw there. At least I could get the spear to the target. The professionals are in a different class all together. They can hit small targets at 100 yards. They also wear long hair, fringed clothing, boony hats, live in tents, and smell vaguely of pipe tobacco – nice people.
Below is a video of me trying my skill at spear throwing with an atlatl.