Say you're lounging around the campfire in your animal skins, wondering if all that ice will ever melt, when a couple of underfed mammoths come charging out of the forest. What to do? Fling a stick at them? Probably not a good idea. Go fetch the thirty-aught-six? Forget it, dreamer. Gunpowder won't even be invented for another sixteen, maybe seventeen thousand years.
No, if you're a well-equipped citizen of the Late Pleistocene epoch, what you do is spear the brutes. You drop those huge, snorting intruders in their tracks before they can grind you into Neanderburgers. And you don't need an arm like Roger Clemens's to pull it off, either. Not if you've got an atlatl back at the cave.
A what? Why, an atlatl, of course. A spear-throwing device.
Even the experts are understandably foggy about dates and sites and sequences, but Bill Tate feels reasonably certain that 200 centuries back, give or take an era, "some paleo-genius" carved a "crochet hook-shaped tool which lengthened the arm when throwing" and created new forces that propelled a spear or dart at previously unheard-of speeds. The first atlatl not only put the local bison on notice, it probably struck fear into the inventor's early Homo sapiens neighbors. Before long, everybody had to have one, including the first Coloradans: At the Jurgens archaeological site near Greeley, scientists have recovered 9,000-year-old fragments of atlatl hooks carved from elks' teeth.
In France, where this marvel of weaponry may have originated (the famous cave paintings at Lascaux may depict prehistoric atlatlists), they know it as a propulseur. The Aborigines of Australia call it a womera, and in other climes it's a "throwing board" or a "spear sling." "Atlatl"--pronounced "at-LAT-el"--is Aztec, and it doesn't even translate as you might expect.
"Water-water," Tate explains with a shrug. Maybe because Mexicans still use it to spear fish and ducks, he speculates. The retired National Weather Service observer is a fervent amateur archaeologist, one of the country's few resident historians on the lost art of enhanced spear-chucking, a designer of the equipment and a moving force behind something called the World Atlatl Association, Inc. (WAA). But there are things that even he doesn't know. Like the history of the atlatl in Cambodia, where the locals sometimes dispatch deadly cobras with it. Or why Eskimos carve a broader version with a rigid handle, with which they harpoon seals and whales from kayaks. Or just how an atlatl multiplies the velocity of a four-foot-long, three-ounce spear 200-fold, on average, over hand-throwing.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with sports?
Twenty thousand years after the fact, the answer to that question, at least this week, is David P. Engvall.
Neither Tate, who is editor of the WAA's quarterly newsletter and an avid thrower himself, nor anyone else in Aurora has actually met young Engvall. But they talk to him on the phone, and this Saturday the engineer from St. Joseph, Missouri, will be in town for a world atlatl distance record attempt. The current mark, pending with the Guinness Book of World Records (after a couple of wrangles with the editors), is 660 feet, 3 inches, set by Wayne Brian of Mesa, Arizona, on September 16, 1993. By all accounts, that's not long for the world.
"I think Engvall will break the record by a hundred feet," Tate says flatly. How? Better equipment. Higher technology. The steady march of a discipline that began when megafauna ruled the earth and domestic bliss meant not braining your mate with twelve pounds of reindeer antler.
Engvall's distance try--scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at historic DeLaney Farm in Aurora--will probably attract a lot less attention than Dante Bichette's next rally-killing throw from the warning track to home plate, or the renewal of John Elway's strong-arm heroics late in the fourth quarter. But in the small, intense world of atlatlists and primitive-weaponry buffs--whose sports are more likely to show up on PBS than ESPN--it's not only news, it's history.
"Too long have I hunted mammoth alone!" Suitably, that's the motto of the WAA, which at last count boasted exactly 234 members. Including Leni Clubb, an eighty-year-old adventuress from Ocotillo, California, who once packed her Volkswagen Bug and her best friend onto a boat bound for Greece, then lived off the land for six months. Professional archaeologists from places like Michigan, Ohio and Casper, Wyoming (where the Atlatl World Open is held each spring). Weapons historians scattered from Canada to Montana to Chillicothe, Missouri, to New York City to Le Grand-Pressigny, France, where only last week the European Spearthrowing Championships were held. And one Pascal Chauvaux, who not only covered the 6th Open Belgian Spearthrower Championships for Tate's latest issue of The Atlatl, but also finished first. "I am sorry," the modest reporter/participant told his readers in reporting the news.
Back in 1984, when Tate first threw a dart at a target at the annual encampment of the Colorado Archaeological Society, he thought he'd found, in the atlatl, "the new Hula Hoop." Instead, the sport--and many of its practitioners' attendant fascination with prehistoric rock art and ancient civilizations--has remained, well, inconspicuous. By Tate's estimate, dedicated atlatlists "number only in the hundreds" worldwide, which does not bode well for the "Spear-Chucker Kits" he manufactures in his Aurora basement and sells by mail order for $39.95. Despite friends' jokes that he's a "paleo-entrepreneur," he's clearly not in it for the money, and the joy he gets from his sport makes up for the deprivation.
"I feel like Johnny Appleseed," he says. "Yes, spreading the word." But even if WAA events and world distance attempts never match the popularity of, say, the tomahawk-throwing contests of latter-day mountain men and muzzle-loader shootouts, much less NFL football, Tate and his far-flung band of fellow practitioners will continue to cherish their avocation.
"In many lights, this is not only a sport, it's a respectable scientific endeavor," Tate says. "It's experimental archaeology. What were these tools capable of? How did they develop?"
To that end, WAA tournaments--some of the target events are played like golf--feature both modern and "primitive" divisions. The latter require atlatls and lightweight spears made from only wood, bone, linen and other ancient materials. By contrast, Engvall's world distance attempt promises the highest technology. After all, he's already heaved something called an Aerobie Flying Ring, which he first saw at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, 1,565 feet, and in October 1993 he sent his newfangled weight-and-string projectile--Mister WASP to you--on a 1,265-foot journey.
Both tosses are headed for Guinness, Engvall writes, and if he can also top the world atlatl mark, he'll be a three-time entrant in the record book--perhaps wedged between the creators of the world's largest submarine sandwich and the makers of the longest tablecloth.
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"For some reason, thinking about how to throw things a long way still captures my attention," he writes. So, too, for shot-putters, discus specialists and cow-chip heavers.
But for some of today's spear-chuckers, accuracy is clearly more crucial than distance. Consider the case of George Frison, the Prometheus of modern atlatlists. In 1988, Tate reports with relish, Frison, the former Wyoming state archaeologist, traveled to Zimbabwe to witness the culling of an elephant herd by the native population and their Stone Age butchering techniques. Amid the bloody spectacle, a wounded, 8,000-pound female elephant suddenly got back on her feet and was preparing to charge when Frison asked permission from his hosts to load up his trusty atlatl.
In an instant, the well-clothed scientist was transformed into a Pleistocene hunter, naked before danger. He aimed. He threw. And the great, tormented beast fell dead, a dart buried deep in her lung cavity. Whatever we think about little-known sports, or prehistoric toolmaking, or the ethics of killing elephants, in the face of that throw, Dante Bichette and John Elway will have to go some to top old George.
Come Saturday morning at DeLaney Farm, so will David Engvall.