Ancient Spear Weapon OK'd For Deer Hunt in Pennsylvania

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 24, 2006
Pennsylvania hunters hoping to stalk deer with Stone Age spear- throwers may get their chance later this year. Today the state's game commission gave preliminary approval for hunting deer hunting using the atlatl and dart.

The ancient weapon uses a throwing stick to propel spearlike projectiles farther and harder than hunters can with arm power alone.

The atlatl (pronounced AHT-lah-tuhl) predates the bow and arrow and was first used some 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, possibly earlier, by hunters around the world.

The weapon appeared in the Americas about the same time humans arrived. It was brought to its technological apex during thousands of years of Native American use.

"It's first and foremost a hunting weapon, and I think that naturally this is what it should be," said Jack Rowe, an atlatl enthusiast from Sayre, Pennsylvania, who lobbied for approval.

Lethal Force

Pennsylvania Game Commissioner Roxane Palone supported a study into the use of the ancient weapon. But game commission staff recommended last week that the board not allow atlatl hunting.

"It's not that we question whether the use of the atlatl and dart has the potential to harvest a deer," Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesperson Jerry Feaser said from his Harrisburg office.

"In experienced hands it is obviously a lethal enough device. However, the staff is not convinced that the atlatl and dart, in the hands of the average hunter, possesses enough lethality to ethically and humanely harvest a deer."

Pennsylvania atlatl enthusiast Gary Fogelman, who supports atlatl hunting in the state, says the hunt would allow him to hone the skills used by his ancient ancestors.

"It's simply trying to conquer a weapons technology that has been around for thousands of years and seeing if you can do it as well as others in the past did it," he said.

"It's the challenge. It certainly doesn't make [hunting] any easier. People ask, What's the advantage? There are no advantages. It makes it harder."

Fogelman disagrees with the game commission's initial concerns that the weapon lacks sufficient lethal force.

"The thing was used for probably 15,000 years by groups of people all over the world," he said. "It had to be effective, or they would have abandoned it pretty quickly."

Not for the Average Hunter

Fogelman notes that ancient hunters used atlatls to kill some of North America's largest animals, including extinct elephant-like mastodons.

More recently the weapons have been used to legally hunt deer and bison in Montana. Fogelman says he used an atlatl to hunt and kill a wild boar on a private reserve.

"The dart passed right through that wild boar quicker than quick," Fogelman said. "The people who are concerned about lethality have obviously never seen an atlatl operate."

To succeed, atlatl hunters must get close to their prey. Rower, the Sayre, Pennsylvania, atlatl enthusiast, says an average hunter may not have much luck with the device.

"It takes some skill," Rowe explained. "Not just with the implement itself, but the skill to understand the animal that you're hunting and its behavior."

He expects only about 30 people to participate in Pennsylvania's first atlatl deer hunt.

Prehistoric Arms Race

Bob Perkins has studied the atlatl for some 20 years and builds the weapons at his company, BPS Engineering, in Manhattan, Montana.

He says the atlatl marked a breakthrough in weapons technology.

"This is the first weapon that humans developed that took us from the role of scavengers to that of full-on hunters," Perkins said. "It's a highly effective weapon."

"It's the ultimate expression of our natural attribute to throw something, to throw and kill at a distance," he added. "That's a skill that set us apart from other predators."

Perkins has been instrumental in modernizing the ancient weapon.

The two-piece device consists of a 2-foot-long (0.6-meter-long) board with a handgrip at the front end and a point, or "spur," at the back.

The spear, called the dart, is a 4- to 6-foot-long (1.2- to 1.8-meter-long) projectile tipped with a stone point. The dart features a rear cavity that fits into the throwing board's spur, keeping the dart parallel.

With an arm motion akin to a tennis serve, hunters can hurl the dart 120 to 150 yards (110 to 140 meters). The projectile generally maintains enough lethal force and accuracy to kill prey 30 to 40 yards (27 to 37 meters) away from a hunter, enthusiasts say.

Perkins describes the dart itself as "an arrow on steroids" that's capable of traveling 80 to 90 miles an hour (129 to 145 kilometers an hour).

"It's deceptively complex, a very sophisticated spring-mass system," he explained. "The dart is basically like a kind of spring. Interestingly enough, the stone point's primary function is not to inflict wounds but to act as a mass that resists acceleration."

He explained: "A pointy stick will punch a hole in something. But the stone point causes the dart to compress like a spring and store spring energy [during the throw]. It's integral to the mechanics."

Atlatl Competitions

Perfecting that throw is an enjoyable challenge for the 400 active members of the World Atlatl Association.

Executive secretary Courtney Birkett, an archaeologist from Williamsburg, Virginia, says that most members of the association are not hunters.

"It's not legal in most places," she said. "I think most people are involved for the [accuracy] competitions and for the companionship really."

"Some people just like primitive skills in general. Even as a little kid I used to make bows and arrows out of sticks."

With a growing number of contests and an onslaught of publicity surrounding the Pennsylvania decision, the atlatl may be hotter than it's been in centuries—which means busy times at Perkins's shop.

So what's the typical atlatl shopper like?

"The demographics are hard to put your finger on," Perkins said. "It's people who have an interest in archaeology, but also people who see them in the park or saw a report on television."

"Wherever people are seeing it, it's becoming more mainstream."

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