Ancient technology survives in many strange ways. Atlatl sport is part of the current surge in recreational interest in “primitive skills.” It is easy to learn to throw with an atlatl, but difficult to become expert. Simple and effective atlatls are easy to make. At the same time, some ancient atlatls (and some modern ones) are elaborate and beautiful, and there is a great deal of variation among forms and details of use. This combination of simple and esoteric, easy and challenging, makes spear throwers ideal for hobby use, and for teaching about prehistoric technology. Even novices can make and use an atlatl with satisfaction, but are also impressed with the potential complexity of preindustrial technology, and the skill and knowledge involved in using it.
Atlatls are about as safe as a projectile weapon can be, so they are excellent for teaching children under supervision. You can’t kill someone with “didn’t know it was loaded” stupidity or an accidental discharge. Range is short, and a miss will not fly for miles or penetrate brush or buildings. WAA promotes safety with the same kind of rules that should be taught for any target sport: targets are spaced, spectators controlled and no one throws at random or when anyone is downrange (See ISAC rules tab).
The atlatl can also involve students and the public in archaeological experimentation. There is a large literature on atlatls (see literature tab) students can research ethnographic and archaeological issues including diffusion of technology, stylistic and functional variation, inferring larger technologies from surviving fragments, social issues of weaponry and technological change, and the like. It is not hard to design and perform simple experiments with atlatls, and some of our understanding of atlatls comes from the experimentation of sporting atlatlists.
The WAA does not organize events, but promotes atlatling by spreading information, maintaining a calendar of events, scorekeeping one standard competition, and publishing a newsletter with competition results and atlatl news and science. Numerous local atlatl associations organize events, and help to promote communication among atlatl enthusiasts. There were more than 70 events in the US and Europe last year, some connected to other events, like history days, knap-ins, and rendezvous. The world of sporting atlatls is friendly and inclusive. Competitions include family members of all ages and are informal and supportive in tone. Super-athletes have not yet taken over!
Events typically include a number of target games, usually some widely used favorites like the ISAC,the European Round, or the “American Field Round” plus some quirky local games such as moving targets or 3-D “hunts”. The International Standard Accuracy Competition (ISAC) was invented by Lloyd Pine in 1996 to allow comparison among atlatlists all over the world. The ISAC is the longest running standardized event, and one of the few for which rules are carefully obeyed and records maintained. Even here, participants at all levels are welcomed, and awards given for Men, Women, and Youth participants competing under the same standards. Most events explicitly try to attract spectators and give anyone who wants a chance to try an atlatl. If they show the slightest interest, we encourage them to join the events.
Hunting and fishing:
Many atlatlists are interested in hunting with spear throwers, currently only legal for some game in some states. A number of local organizations are attempting to legalize atlatl hunting in their states. Wildlife authorities have legitimate concerns about safety and humane killing of game, but the safety and efficiency of the atlatl is easily demonstrated, and a number of atlatlists have successfully taken deer, boar, small game, and fish. After all, spear throwers were used all over the world for thousands of years to kill animals up to the size of elephants. The WAA does not actively lobby, but does attempt to provide accurate information and communication to support those involved in legalizing atlatl hunting.
Left, Bob Berg with hog. Right, John Whittaker with Carp.