The question of which sport known to man is the oldest in the world sends most people back to researching the first Olympic games. And that’s a good start. But if you ask some enthusiasts, they’ll tell you it’s a practice known as atlatl, or spear-throwing.
Which, it might be noted, is quite a bit like the javelin throw.
Never heard of atlatl? Don’t feel bad. History class hasn’t given you the shaft. (See what we did there?)
The word atlatl (pronounced “attle-attle") originates from the Aztec language. Human use of the atlatl in hunting has been documented to the Upper Paleolithic era about 30,000 years ago, but anthropologists have estimated that spears were used by the pre-human ancestor Homo heidelbergensis about 400,000 years ago.
Atlatl enthusiasts can date their sport to before the appearance of Homo sapiens. The woomera, a wooden Australian Aboriginal spear-throwing device, is closely related to the atlatl.
More modern atlatls look like a shaft with a cup or a spur at the end that supports and propels the butt of a long dart or light spear, which is often about seven feet long. Atlatls can be made of either wood (for a more traditional approach) or aluminum (the choice for competitive practitioners). Many atlatl makers base their designs on prehistoric specimens found in caves. The point of the tool is that by using a bearing surface (the cup or spur), the thrower can get greater leverage and more accuracy than if he threw the dart or spear with just his hand or arm.
“The throwing motion with an atlatl is the same as in throwing a ball or rock,” according to The World Atlatl Association. “The main difference is that when you snap your wrist at the end of a pitch, your wrist provides a short lever arm, while the same snap of the wrist while holding an atlatl gives you a long lever, like adding another arm joint.”
Atlatl enthusiasts say that it takes only a few hours to get the hang of using the device, and it’s a relatively inexpensive sporting pursuit that can be played anywhere there’s throwing space and a target.
Atlatl may not be wildly popular, but it has its fans, and several American colleges have atlatl clubs, including Grinnell College in Iowa, Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, Alfred University in New York, and the University of Vermont. Oregon, Rhode Island and in Lexington, Kentucky all offer competitive atlatl events, and Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania have explicit provisions for using the atlatl in deer hunting. Missouri authorizes use of the atlatl for turkey hunting and fishing, as well.
According to the World Atlatl Association, there were more than 70 events in the U.S. and Europe last year, though many of them were connected to other events, like history days or cultural events. In the U.S., the largest atlatl gathering is hosted annually by the WAA in the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. A comprehensive list of U.S.-based atlatl associations can be found here.