SLINGS AND ARROWS
For the 12th year, the Chimney Point State Historic Site in Addison will host the Northeast Annual Open Atlatl Championship competition (Sept. 14-16), and ace atlatl titleist Robert Berg will lead a workshop at which participants will make their own atlatls and fletch three field darts. As part of Vermont Archaeology Month, people will engage in a Stone Age activity next to the huge iron bridge over Lake Champlain.
So, what’s an atlatl, something from Mad Magazine? No, that’s the axolotl, a lizard of the high mountain lakes in Mexico, found in the territory the Nahuatl once ruled, hence the –tl ending. An atlatl, also from the Nahuatl, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a device for throwing a spear or dart that consists of a rod or board with a projection (as a hook) at the rear end to hold the weapon in place until released.”
In other words, the atlatl is a way of throwing a sharp-pointed, spearlike object as if your arm were longer, giving you more range. It takes practice to master the sweeping motion needed to send the projectile accurately, but in its day this was a formidable hunting implement.
One of my fascinations has been the way similar extensions of human strength were developed all over the world during the earliest ages of human society, in so many different ways. South American had the bolo, three weights on three ropes connected at the middle so that when thrown whirling at an ostrich’s legs, it would tangle them up. American tribes sometimes used the rabbit stick, a simple length of wood thrown parallel with and just above the ground, so that its faster outer whirling part would knock out a small animal looking over the grass. The spear used the mass and momentum of its heavy length to drive home the relatively crude stone points of the Neolithic. Some jungle tribes used the blow tube, after they learned how poisonous some things around them were, meaning that a small wound from a small dart could be made fatal. Various snares and possibly devices similar to the Malaysian Gate (ask a Vietnam veteran) took on added force from the controlled release of bent vegetation. The Middle East had the sling, swung in a circle to throw a rock with increased speed and terrific effect, as gigantic Goliath discovered when confronting the Hebrew shepherd boy David. The bow and arrow were so effective that the invention diffused widely, or occurred independently in many places. Top prize ought to go to Australia’s aboriginals, whose boomerangs, aerodynamically shaped rabbit sticks, would circle back to the thrower if they missed their target—thus utilizing the basic principle behind flight long before people could ever take off from the ground themselves.
So began our long history of warfare, with war against other animals.
To complete the prehistoric picture, one more invention needs to be recognized: rope. Maybe the idea came from women’s invention of thread, as a way of putting together garments and shelters. Maybe observation of vines and their twisted and twisting growth habits gave someone the idea. Maybe unkempt hair, which tends to clump naturally into coils like the Rastafarians’ “dreadlocks.” In any case, people were soon twisting flexible materials into better and better cordage, which had all sorts of uses (the bow, a musical instrument as well as a weapon, depended on such an invention).
It was rope that enabled one group of people to make captives of some other group, rather than having to kill them. It was the kind of rope known as a whip that make such captives slaves. And “civilization,” like it or not, was born of enslavements, just as our modern civilization began with the arrival of machinery.
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