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Atlatl hurlers harken to prehistoric times in Washington competition

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:57 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Tom Gourley III (right) of Washington receives some instructions on the proper throwing technique of a long dart with an atlatl from Frank Takoch (center) of Winterville, Ohio, during the Meadowcroft Atlatl Competition at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella on Saturday, June 15, 2013. Matt Novick of Hickory looks on.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Dominic Muraca, 11, of Monongahela, attaches a long dart to an atlatl during the Meadowcroft Atlatl Competition Saturday, June 15, 2013 at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella. The annual event introduces people to the sport, as well as, holds competition during the three-day contest. Prehistoric hunters used the long spears to hunt their prey at relatively safe distances.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
A generic (top), and customized atlatl with long darts at the Meadowcroft Atlatl Competition Saturday, June 15, 2013 at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Frank Takoch of Winterville, Ohio, gives some throwing pointers to Laura Bailey of Cleveland, Ohio, at the Meadowsroft Atlatl Competition on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella. The long darts were used by prehistoric hunters to hunt prey from relatively safe distances.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Competitor Michael Frank of Woodbridge, Va., removes long darts from a target at the Meadowcroft Atlatl Competition at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella, Washington County, on Saturday, June 15, 2013. The three-day annual event introduces people to the sport. The spears, or long darts, were used by prehistoric hunters to hunt their prey at relatively safe distances. The dart is launched with an atlatl.

Prehistoric hunters they were not.

But the dozen or so men, women and children hurling spears through the air Saturday at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village used a weapon that their long-ago ancestors might have, an atlatl — though some of the spears, fashioned from a fishing rod, an arrow shaft and a golf tee, would not have been so familiar.

What's an atlatl?

It's a spear-thrower that gives the spear velocity and distance, which allowed prehistoric hunters to nab dinner from a safe distance.

Meadowcroft, the oldest site of human habitation in North America, hosted its 15th annual Atlatl Competition in Avella, Washington County, on Saturday. Winners received the Miller Point Award, named for farmer Albert Miller and the prehistoric flint spear point he discovered at the site of Meadowcroft in 1955, leading to the excavation of the rockshelter.

“Everyone has an ancestor who has used one of these,” said Gary Nolf, 59, of Westbrook, Conn., president of the World Atlatl Association, which sanctioned the event. “We wouldn't be here without them. They used these to hunt and to obtain sustenance.”

Meadowcroft Director Dave Scofield said the word, atlatl, is Aztec, and that Spaniards “found out the hard way” that spears tossed by atlatls could perforate armor. Researchers believe that man had used atlatls nearly 30,000 years ago. Some archeological finds suggest atlatls were used in North America, he said, but nothing has been unearthed in the Western Pennsylvania area.

Atlatls are little more than a foot long, usually crafted of wood, A spear is perched atop the atlatl; the thrower flicks it, and the spear sails.

The only two “rules,” according to the throwers: Keep your throwing elbow up, and follow up with a flick of the wrist. Otherwise, there are no style points, so anything goes.

One competitor regularly throws sidearmed, like a baseball pitcher. Others lobbed theirs in an arc, the shaft of the spear wobbling wildly as it soared toward targets with either a deer on it, or at a sheet with several targets.

The competition was open to the public and novices encouraged to participate.

Marlin Bassett, 10, of Warsaw, N.Y., was first throwing spears with an atlatl when he was 3, “but I actually started hitting a target when I was 4 years old.”

His aim has improved since then, as he's won several competitions over the past few years. He competed with his dad, Doug.

“This isn't like cavemen with clubs,” Marlin said, adding he sometimes gets teased about participating in the sport by his schoolmates. “This is more of the time of the Ice Age.”

Many participants, Scofield said, make their own atlatls and spears. Nolf had a whole bag of them, some hand-carved and ornate, modeled after those used in New Guinea, Australia, and by Aztecs. Another was as simple as a tree branch.

Participants said someone doesn't have to be an athlete to be successful in the sport, comparing it to throwing darts.

Lori Majorsky, 55, of Derry, Westmoreland County, a three-time World Atlatl Association women's champion, said, “You just always want to hit that bullseye. You're always looking for a better score.”

Her husband, Andy, launched one spear that after sailing about 35 meters, landed with a loud thump in the hide of a stuffed bear.

“They were using these (atlatls) well before the bow and arrow were invented,” Andy Majorsky, 60, said.

For more information about the World Atlatl Association, go to waa.basketmakeratlatl.com.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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