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The new sport of ancient spear-throwing


Celine Rainville, captain of the Hurling Ravens (Courtesy Franklin Pierce University)

Franklin Pierce University senior Celine Rainville is the captain of the Hurling Ravens, one of the few college teams to participate in spear-thrower competitions. Referred to by the Aztec word atlatl, spear-throwers were the weapon of choice for prehistoric cultures the world over. Rainville talked with ARCHAEOLOGY's Eric A. Powell about how an atlatl coach motivates her team, where to get a state-of-the-art atlatl, and why today's undergraduates would want to master a 25,000-year-old weapon.

Is it tough explaining to people what an atlatl is?
A little. Basically I tell them that an atlatl is an ancient spear-thrower, not the spear itself. It's essentially a stick that can hold a spear, or dart, and acts like another joint for your arm, giving you the ability to hurl a spear farther. In prehistoric times they were used mainly for hunting big game--really big game, like mammoth, or bison. But we use them to throw spears at a Styrofoam deer decoy.

How did you get into atlatls?
Freshman year, my archaeology professor Robert Goodby introduced me to them. He took our class outside with atlatls and plenty of darts and we threw spears at a trash can. I was totally hooked. The anthropology club started sending students to competitions, and now we have the team. There's no official roster, but we get from 5 to 20 students at practice, which is pretty incredible.

What are your responsibilities as team captain?
Basically I organize practices, which we have once a week. We grab our atlatls and the decoy deer and spend about 45 minutes to an hour throwing. I also encourage the team, try to give them pep talks. For instance, I'll tell them to imagine a scenario where they haven't eaten for a week and they're going to have to hit this deer if they want food. That gives them some motivation.

How do you equip the team?
Everyone has their favorite atlatl. I actually own mine. The father of the former captain of the team made it for me after I did well at a competition. It's got a mammoth-ivory ball at the tooth, the part that holds the spear, and you can feel the difference it makes on the release.

Can you buy an atlatl or do most people make their own?
Oh yeah, you can buy them, but they're not cheap. They can run up to $300, and some of those are really nice. We've talked about creating our own, but it's great to have a professionally made one. Most of ours are from Doug Bassett's Thunderbird Atlatl. He's always at the competitions.

How do these competitions work?
There are usually two components, accuracy and distance. In the accuracy competition you stand about 20 feet from a target. But the best throwers can hurl a spear about 500 feet, or even farther. The judges combine your accuracy and distance for an overall score.

Do you have any rivals?
The University of Vermont has a team. If we had a rival, it would be UVM. Last year we competed against them at the Chimney Point Historic Site atlatl competition in Vermont. That was the second time we competed there. The first year I didn't do so well. But last year I got the silver medal for accuracy!

That sounds huge!
Oh yeah. But, realistically, it's not like this is going to be an NCAA sport anytime soon. We use atlatls for recreation, basically, but they really do make the past more tangible, and not just for archaeology geeks.

Are there any real world uses for the atlatl?
Not really. It's not legal to hunt with an atlatl except in Montana. Fishing with it is legal in a couple of other states. But I do think atlatl hunting would be a lot more fair to the animals, more humane. We've joked about hunting the geese on campus because we have way too many of them. But security probably wouldn't like that.

Do you feel a connection with prehistoric people when you throw?
Back in the day the people who used atlatls were very, very skilled. We do it for fun, not subsistence. So we have really different motivations. But if it came down to it and we really had to figure out how to survive using atlatls, we could do it.