Leni Clubb remembers the indescribable thrill she felt in 1983 in Casper, Wyo., when she first heard the "ka-thunk" sound of her atlatl dart striking its intended target.
It was something that sparked a passion that continues to course through Leni, now in her 60s and boasting a wicked accuracy with the prehistoric weapon that takes her to atlatl competitions around the nation.On Saturday, that passion led Leni, the founder of the World Atlatl Association, to Crystal Hot Springs just north of Brigham City where she helped organize the first - and what atlatl lovers hope will become annual - Great Basin Classic Atlatl Contest.
"The minute I threw my first one, I knew I was hooked forever," Clubb said. It's an addiction she is hoping to share with the hundreds of young people who have flocked to atlatl competitions around the world.
Utah kids were out in force on Saturday to try their hand, or arm, with the atlatl. Ten-year-old Daniel Friz of Layton had never thrown an atlatl before but quickly entered the junior competition anyway with a borrowed atlatl.
"It's pretty fun, actually," he said. "But I can't imagine how anyone got their dinner every night with one of these. They'd have to be really, really good."
His sister, Amanda, 13, took considerable pride in beating some of the boys in her first effort. "It's harder than the archery I did in grade school, but it's more fun. I really want to keep doing it," she said.
The atlatl is an ancient technology that extends the length of the throwing arm, giving the willow shaft and detachable dart at the end several times the force it would have had without the device. For those who know what they are doing, an atlatl can throw a spear dart with deadly accuracy at 40 yards, sometimes more. The dart itself can fly 100 yards with ease.
The weapon was used by various pre-firearm peoples for hunting everything from ducks and seals to mammoths and bison. The earliest documented use of the atlatl was more than 30,000 years ago, and it continued in use through the 19th century, making it one of the longest-lived technologies in human history.
The Aztecs of central Mexico used atlatls with deadly accuracy, as Hernando Cortes found out when he was repulsed in his first attempt to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. "It was a fearsome weapon," marveled Russell Richard, an atlatl aficionado who traveled from his home in Buford, Wyo., to attend the Utah competition.
The atlatl was the weapon of choice among prehistoric Utahns prior to about A.D. 100 when the bow and arrow appeared. But even with the bow and arrow, which could be fired much quicker, the atlatl continued to be used up until the period of historic contact.
For the most part, the art of shooting atlatl darts disappeared with the acculturation of native peoples and the widespread availability of firearms.
The World Atlatl Association aims to preserve the prehistoric tradition through competitions and public education not only about the device but about the people who used the technology.
Competitions like the Great Basin Classic, which attracted a wide range of participants from small children to seniors, is "a good way to teach prehistory and get people involved in archaeology," said Robert Hamilton of Ogden, an archaeologist and organizer of the Great Basin Classic.
"Archaeology can be kind of boring if we don't come up with something for people to experience. And by experiencing the atlatl, maybe they will develop a respect for the prehistoric people who used it."
A good share of the serious atlatl competitors are, in fact, archaeologists. Richard and Hamilton are both archaeologists, and Clubb was actively involved as an avocational archaeologist with the Colorado Archaeological Society before moving to California. It was members of that society who formed the World Atlatl Association in 1987 with 75 charter members.
Today there are more than 400 members throughout the world, with organized competitions in North American and Europe, and standardized rules that allow competitors all over the world to be ranked on the same scale.
The competitions feature a wide variety of atlatl styles, depending on personal preference. In fact, there is considerable variation in atlatls used throughout human history.
But the basic technology was the same - extending the length of the throwing arm, thereby increasing the velocity of the dart. And to prehistoric peoples, greater velocity meant greater force, greater range and more food on the table.
Perhaps it is the proverbial "thrill of the hunt" ingrained somewhere in the human need for survival, perpetuated by thousands upon thousands of years of hunting and gathering, that lures people to atlatl contests today.
Something inexplicable deep inside the psyche prompts people to knap their own atlatl darts out of stone, tie off their darts with genuine animal sinew and shape their shafts out of native willows.
In the case of Bill Tate, the first president of the association, he loved atlatls so much he quit his job and began making atlatls and darts that he marketed to a small-but-loyal cadre of atlatl fans. Others spends weeks every year traveling from one contest to another across the nation.
To say atlatl adherents are fanatical is an understatement, Hamilton said. "And it just keeps getting bigger every year."