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They throw back in time

Once a survival tool, atlatl is now a sport

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FREMONT INDIAN STATE PARK — Opening ceremonies consisted of echoing cannon fire and muzzleloader blasts and a few words from a man in buckskin pants and moccasins.

With that, the World Atlatl Championships got under way this past weekend.

Before guns, before bows and arrows, and sometime after spears with stone points, the atlatl came into use, somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.

The atlatl is nothing more than a carved stick about two feet long, maybe an inch wide, with a notch in one end and finger holds in the other.

It is a companion to a dart, which resembles a very long arrow. Darts can measure up to seven feet.

On Saturday, 50 throwers from different parts of the world came to test their skills with the ancient tool. The field was really not a good representation of modern-day participation, said Pete Weimer, assistant park manager and event organizer, "but it does show the involvement of people. Several of the throwers came from Europe to compete."

The origin of the atlatl goes back to times when mammoths roamed and men hunted them — and anything else they could eat or that was interested in eating them.

Since that time, various styles of the atlatl have been discovered in many locations around the world. The only continents on which atlatls haven't been discovered are Africa and Antarctica. Some Eskimo tribes in the Arctic still use the thrower today.

Men found that by using a thin, wooden extension of the arm, a dart could be thrown further, faster and more accurately. It elevated survival to a new level.

According to Weimer, a recent study found that a dart thrown with an atlatl hits a target with 15 times the speed and 200 times more force than the same dart thrown without the extension.

Building a working atlatl and dart is not that difficult, either, says Ray Madden, from Joplin, Mo., known in throwing circles for his ancient craftsmanship.

"This one here," he said, holding out a newly carved atlatl and dart, complete with turkey feathers and tapered to hold an interchangeable point, "took me about an hour and a half to make, if you don't count the two days it took for the wood to dry."

Here in Utah, the oldest atlatl was found near Snow Canyon outside St. George and dated back some 6,000 years. Studies show that atlatls were used continuously in the Great Basin region for about 10,000 years and were eventually replaced by the bow and arrow.

Modern participation involves a game played very much like golf, requiring distance and accuracy. But instead of strokes, judges count throws. A dart stuck in the cardboard figure completes play for that target.

Good throwers can accurately hit a target at 100 feet. The world record for distance, which involved use of a computer-designed atlatl and dart, is 848.5 feet.

Throwers on Saturday were calling the course — set on the brush-covered slopes across the freeway from the Fremont Museum — one of the best they'd been on. Using the natural terrain, participants had to throw uphill and down, across ravines and into targets guarded by oak brush. Typically, a long throw of 100 yards or more, made by the best throwers, was followed by a throw for accuracy.

The field included a diverse gathering of throwers. Pascal Chauvaux of Certontcine, Belgium, the 1996 world champion, and Emmanuel de Moulin of Pyrenees, France, came here representing clubs of nearly 1,000 throwers.

They came, said Chauvaux through an interpreter, to show support for what is a growing sport back home.

David Simmons, a science teacher in Page, Ariz., is a newcomer. He got involved as part of a science project.

"I used the atlatl as an example of the principle of leverage for a class. I got into it and now I've got all my students throwing," he said as he walked between targets.

Madden got involved when he lived in Oklahoma as a kid and learned the art from the American Indians there.

"The more I got into it, the more I wanted to know. I read all I could and then I started to make them," he explained.

"The people who invented the atlatl really were geniuses in their time. Actually, it has a lot of things over the bow and arrow. For one, it can be used with one hand. Also, you can throw, with force, from almost any position — in a boat, sitting down, standing, from behind a tree. It's amazing that something so simple can work so well."

Throwing a dart with an atlatl hasn't reached the interest level of other sports, but it is growing, says Weimer.

"I'll bet I'm teaching about a thousand kids a year to throw. Funny thing is that once you throw you're hooked," he added.

It's certain, though, that the early inventors never, not in 20,000 years, could have imagined that people would ever throw simply for fun or that there would ever be a world championship.

E-MAIL: grass@desnews.com