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Learn How Our Ancestors Hunted During Inks Lake State Park Atlatl Demos

Inks Lake State Park interpreter Lindsay Pannell demonstrates how to use an atlatl. The weapon system is composed of a spear (or dart) and a handle that acts as a lever to give the thrower more power. The atlatl is one of the first weapon systems, as well as simple machines, used by early humans. Some indigenous peoples in South America and Australia still use the device. Staff photos by Daniel Clifton

HOOVER’S VALLEY — Prepare yourself because she’s probably going to throw the spear farther than you. Just accept that going in.

Of course, Inks Lake State Park interpreter Lindsay Pannell gets more practice with the atlatl than most modern-day people since she regularly gives presentations on the prehistoric weapon system. During a recent demonstration for a group of young women, most of the spears floundered in the air before crashing to the ground, although one teen launched the dart a pretty good distance.

However, Pannell, with a fluid motion, fired the dart 30-40 yards, and she wasn’t even trying.

“It takes practice,” she told the group.

And, it does.

The atlatl, Pannell said, dates back thousands of years and is one of man's first weapon systems as well as one of the first simple machines. It’s a lever.

Prehistoric hunters first used spears, simply sticks with sharpened ends or stone spearheads.

But the spear had its limits. You had to get really close to an animal to either stab it or throw the spear with enough power to kill.

The atlatl changed that. The weapon system consists of a spear, or dart, and the throwing stick, or lever. The lever has a small notch at the end for the base of the spear. The spear lays parallel on top of the lever while in your hand as you pinch together the two with your thumb and forefinger.

Then, you throw the spear.

“The atlatl, it extends your arm, basically giving you an additional eight-foot reach,” Pannell explained.

Those 8 feet provide more power so the spear can travel farther and still penetrate an animal.

Early peoples also hunted in groups, Pannell said, so some of them could funnel an animal toward waiting hunters. They could then launch several spears at the animal and trail it until it bled out or immediately bring it down in one coordinated strike.

“It was used on megafauna, which is anything ninety-six pounds or heavier,” Pannell said. “That isn’t very heavy, like a deer, but early (North American) hunters used it on bison antiquus, which was roughly the size of an (SUV). And, then, there was the dire wolf.”

An Inks Lake State Park visitor tries her hand at using an atlatl during a recent demonstration of the prehistoric weapon system.

The atlatl also served as the main weapon of prehistoric peoples, especially in North America, even after the bow and arrow were invented. The atlatl required only one hand so a warrior could run and throw it with more accuracy than a bow and arrow while holding a shield in the other hand.

“There are still some indigenous people in South American and Australia that use this,” Pannell said about the atlatl.

The bow and arrow, Pannell said, became the dominant choice only after Europeans introduced horses to North America. Native Americans soon adapted them for hunting and warfare on horseback.

After a couple of practice rounds, Pannell rolled out Big Shaggy and Mrs. Shaggy, two cardboard box targets. Then, with their new atlatl skills in hand, the young women tried to “take down” the Shaggies. They quickly learned that if they need to depend on their atlatl skills to put food on the table, it was going to take more practice.

“Yeah, if you were using this for getting meat, you’d learn to use it pretty quick and practice,” Pannell said.

“Or starve,” one of the adult leaders chimed in.

“Thank goodness for H-E-B,” another added with a laugh.

Inks Lake State Park will host atlatl demonstrations at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, July 13, 20, and 27. The park is located at 3630 Park Road 4. Entrance fees are $6 for ages 13 and older. The program is free.

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