Competition unravels mysteries of the atlatl

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

UNALASKA (AP) -- Dozens of curious hunters took to the old ballfield last Saturday, with hopes of discovering the mysteries of an ancient weapon.

At the fourth annual Alaska Atlatl Competition, Unalaska residents got a chance to practice with the hand-held spear-launching devices used by Aleut hunters for thousands of years.

Based on an event earlier this month, local skill levels today vary widely. Most novices struggled to even hit the wooden targets of a killer whale, sea lion and sea otter, which appeared at ranges of 10 to 20 yards. More experienced throwers could skewer the targets with enough force to fully penetrate them.

Getting the throwing motion down, which is similar to that of a baseball, can be a tough accomplishment.

''It's kind of an awkward thing if you haven't been shown as kids, but it's a traditional thing,'' said Patty Gregory, who remembered making an atlatl while attending Unalaska City School in the 1970s.

That is the lesson that organizers hope the atlatl demonstration will teach. The event was cosponsored by the National Park Service, Museum of the Aleutians and the Qawalangin Tribe as an introduction to the weapon of choice for traditional Aleut hunters.

The atlatl -- known in the Unangan language as a ''haasux'' -- is a throwing board that serves as a launching pad for a spear. When used by a skilled thrower, the spear can generate the power of a 60-pound bow. It was used locally for hunting sea mammals.

In terms of practical use, the atlatl has been retired for nearly a century. The last traditional hunt with the weapon in Unalaska happened in 1908, when sea otters were targeted.

When a traditionally crafted atlatl was made, the dimensions of the throwing board and spear were based on measurements of the forearm, fingers and other parts of the hunter. The spear tip was made of whale jawbone, with a wooden shaft and carved throwing board. The weapons were always thrown right-handed, thanks to the design of bentwood hunting caps that had whiskers protruding from the left side.

The event also included a slide show on spear-thrower prehistory, including worldwide use of the atlatl.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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