Humans have been using atlatls for thousands of years to hunt and fish. The following is a story about my adventures using replicas of this anchient weapon to hunt wild boar:
I have been hunting with this ancient style weapon for several years and have developed modern boar hunting equipment for the purpose using designs inspired by the cultures who used it in the past.I have become an avid wild boar hunter using atlatls.
The atlatl is a hand thrown archery weapon that has surprising killing power, in spite of its simplicity. It consists of a five to seven foot dart, which is like a large arrow that is cast using the assistance of a two foot long stick that has a handle on one end and a hook on the other. The hook engages the dart in a small cone shaped dimple in the back end. The stick or atlatl adds propulsive force to the dart by force applied to it by the shooter’s arm and hand. It is about seven to ten times more powerful than a spear thrown by hand. It is also more accurate than a hand thrown spear, accurate enough out to about 25 yards to kill wild boar.
I believe it all started in ernest in 1993 at an atlatl contest in Apalachin N.Y. when I met Lou Becker, a fellow atlatl enthusiast who had come down from Michigan to compete at the Eastern Seaboard Contest. We were all pretty green then and knew very little of the potential of the atlatl. I was experimenting with all sorts of dart materials and atlatl designs. I hadn’t yet developed a good form nor much of my instinctive shooting abilities. I couldn’t yet make a very good dart point out of flint, though I tried, desperately almost every day.
Little did I know that the weekend of the Eastern Seaboard Atlatl Contest would become my epiphany, as I had started to fall into stride with several other atlatlists, including Gary Fogelman, an alatlist and Indian artefacts collector and the author of Indian Artefacts Magazine, and of course Lou Becker of Bow Sport Archery. Before this weekend the primitive weapon thing for me was still just a passing fancy. I have gone through many passing fancies in my life which included fly fishing, boat building, and black powder hunting, but this atlatl thing was way more than a smoldering ember in my tinder bundle. This little hobby eventually was to become a roaring bonfire, consuming whole trunks of mighty ash trees, herds of wild boar, and flint boulders.
One of the embers that kindled that fire was that Lou invited me to go to Georgia with him and several other Michigan atlatl enthusiasts on a wild boar hunt. Man what an idea! Hunting wild boar with an atlatl really appealed to me. I think what made it so appealing was the fact that I could put all the primitive skills that I had been learning into one experimental package and really find out what it would feel like to hunt like paleo man.
Another one of those embers formed when I was probably about ten years old. I found an arrowhead on the newly seeded ball field at the Apalachin Elementary School. I remember taking that arrowhead to bed with me. I couldn’t let it out of my hand it had such a hold on my psyche. I was awe struck by its simple rough beauty. I truly felt a kinship grew between me and the maker of that artefact. Years later a wild boar hunt would let me see into the mind of the maker of that point.
At the wild boar hunt in Vidalia, Georgia I met Norm Blaker and Steve Coleman. Norm was the first real master flintknapper, and Steve was the first truly instinctive atlatl shooter I had met up to that point. What I learned from them I would incorporate into my atlatl and dart designs, as well as my style of shooting and hunting.
My dart bounced out of the little fifty pound boar that I hit with my dart. The flint point was way too dull, and the shaft too light to achieve the penetration needed to kill. After I went home from that hunt, I adjusted and re-tooled. I made better points and heavier shafts, this time of split ash rather than spruce. I made them a little larger in diameter and a little stiffer. After more practice with flint knapping my new points were sharp, and thin enough to haft properly, and they were hafted using hide glue and dogbane fiber for the next time I would go boar hunting.
The hunt at Cold Brook was more of a test of my equipment than a test of my hunting skill. The guys I took with me did the real hunting. I just did the shooting. Jim Shuler and Herb McDowell made sure wild boar ran by me. The equipment worked and my aim was good.
The next hunt at Turtle Creek was a lesson on what it is like to wound an animal and run out of ammunition. Now I know that you can’t make too many darts when you get ready for a hunt. Several hunts at Tioga taught me that a wild boar is a dangerous animal and can kill or hurt you don’t pay it proper respect. I learned there that wild boar are a formidable creature who not only have a will to live, but is vengeful animal with no sense of humor.
It wasn’t until Wendell Adams, Leggs White and I went to Florida to hunt along the banks of the Oklawaha River that I really learned anything about how to hunt those wild beasts. There are perhaps a million acres in that habitat, and if you don’t do the right things, you will not even see a hog. I also learned that you can make a really excellent shot and still loose your quarry in a cane break.
Things have changed in the last twelve or fifteen thousand years. It used to be that if you wanted to hunt in Florida ( or what ever they called it back then) you had to hunt with an atlatl because that was all there was available at the time. It would be another ten thousand years before they even had bows and arrows around there.
You had to make your own ammunition too. The wild game was a lot different then. Mammoths, giant ground sloths and camilids roamed the peninsula. It would be another twelve thousand years before the Spanish would bring the first swine to Florida.
Florida was much larger then than now. During the ice age sea level was much lower. Much of what is now under water was dry land.
There were good habitat for game and plenty of materials for building atlatls and darts. Flint, bone shell, and ivory were plentiful in Florida and so was cane. Those raw materials were the back bone of the hunting equipment makers of the day. All you needed beyond that was a great deal of knowledge skill and instinct to use such weapons and tools.
It has been my quest to recreate the kind of hunting that was done back then. In the process I have had to learn how to knapp flint, how to make and use an atlatl effectively, how to track wounded animals, and how to use stone tools to skin and butcher. I know that it is impossible to recreate the species of animals that existed at the time so the wild boar we have now would have to do.
I would say without hesitation that the best thing I did during this process was to make some great friends who share the same interest, including the friends that went with me on this hunt, and all the hunts I went on, not to mention the people who taught me non hunting related skills.
Just after we got to our camp in Silver Springs Florida, Wendell, Leggs and I met with Micah and Andy, two graduate students in the field of archaeology who live in north Florida. Our plan was to make some flint points to tip our atlatl darts for the wild boar hunt. Atlatl practice was also on the agenda.
Micah is a real talented flintknapper, so we were pleased to have his help and expertise in generating some primitive weaponry for this hunt. In addition to atlatl darts we also made a couple of thrusting spears out of some local wood that we harvested in the hedge row next to camp and two large stone points that Micah and I had made. Sometimes during a boar hunt a heavy thrusting spear is needed. Rarely, you will encounter three hundred pound and larger pigs in the wild. When they charge you, you will need something a little stiffer than an atlatl dart to fend them off. I know from experience, but that is another story.
Big Wooley and I hafted points that I had made earlier for the purpose, while Micah made some new ones. Meanwhile Leggs put in a good bit of atlatl practice. Andy took many shots too and became a fair atlatlist in just a couple of hours. I think Micah, who was already pretty good also improved a bit.
We got started early the next morning. We went out to the land we planned to hunt which is a parcel of several thousand acres along the banks of the Oklawaha River in the neighborhood of Ocala, Florida. The terrain consists of recently cut pine forest, cane break, and virgin cypress swamp, in roughly equal measures, depending on its elevation above the Oklawaha. The property is contiguous with tens of thousands of acres of similar land along the Oklawaha, offering incredibly good habitat for wild boar.
There are also plenty of deer and other wild life in the area including black bear, which we were able to see two years ago in this same location. We have seen osceola turkeys, alligators, squirrels, and monkeys in this location. It was easy to imagine oneself in this setting to be back in the days when atlatl hunting was an every day event.
Warm spring winds blew gently through the palmedows and cane. In the distance I could see a vulture in the tree tops drying its dew soaked wings, outstretched to catch the morning sun and breeze. I hunted from a ground blind that I had hastily constructed out of forest debris that morning in a relatively sparse part of the cane break.
I heard the crackling of wild boar approaching though the dry thatch of dead palmedow leaves. I had been hearing them for a while. But they were now on the other side of the boundary beyond where we were allowed to hunt. My hope was that they would eventually come my way.
Those gentile winds were, however, not blowing in the right direction.
The swine started to put up a squall. I thought they must be fighting over something. I decided to go over and investigate.” The figured the worst thing that could happen is that they would run away.
The squealing became more intense as I got closer. I don’t think they ever noticed me as I approached . The wild pigs were now about fifty yards behind my ground blind in a cane break thicker than the weave of a picnic basket. Atlatls don’t work that well in brush that thick, but you never know, you might get a shot in anyway. My heart pounded as I got closer.
I bent to look under the palmedows and saw the first pig only twelve yards away. I was looking at him looking at me. The jig was up. That pig and the rest of the wild boar herd with it melted into the underbrush. The first sighting of wild boar was getting me excited about the hunt.
We hunted for a few days without much action until one evening on the way out of the woods we encountered a herd of small wild boar crossing a logging road. Normally I don’t think I would have shot at such a small animal but predatory instinct got the best of me. I took a shot at fifty yards and connected— with a little fifty pound pig. I had to shoot the dart at a high angle to get it there. The fact that it hit was either incredible luck or a case of predatory instinct taking over my mind and body. In any case the little boar turned out to be the finest meat we had eaten in a while.
Our next encounter with a boar was the next morning. We had made extensive plans the previous evening, which fell apart as soon as we reached the hunt site. The elusive wild boars were slinking into a large clear cut just as we walked up to it. We put our plans on the back burner and went to plan omega three.
I started out by taking a shot at about thirty five yards but missed. I pursued the boars into the field, knowing Big Wooley and Leggs would get into action and form up a triangle around them. We had talked it over many times in the past about what we would do in a situation like this, so I knew I could count on them. As we closed the triangle in we knew that our quarry would have to go by at least one of us to escape. Leggs signaled me that they were coming my way so I crouched low behind some tall saw grass.
They came out in two groups of three or four each. I stayed low until the first group went by. I had my dart knocked and laying against the back of my left hand which now held five darts. Those five darts were across my knees in the proper position for a quick reload. I stood up and chose the last of the first group of boars as my target.
I shot, leading the running boar just enough. I hit it right behind the left shoulder. The dart drove the three inch flint point deeply into the vitals of the boar. The half inch ash shaft bent but did not break as the boar beat its final retreat toward the row of pines and palmedows.
We even butcher the hogs we kill like cave men. We use stone blades knapped from flint blade cores that we carry in our pockets or leather pouches. At the hog hunt at Cold Brook three years ago the guides were amazed at the efficiency of our stone tools, but they are actually sharper than typical metal knives.
Big Wooley and I spent the next day hiking down to the Oklawaha river through the cypress swamp. We made believe we were hunting but we were really sight seeing. It has been dry for the last few years in North Florida so we were able to walk on dry hard ground all the way to the river. This untouched wilderness is truly the same as it was thousands of years ago.
We saw an otter, pileated woodpeckers, several species of ducks and fish, as well as thousands of bivalves upon which the wild boar were obviously feeding. This helped to explain why we didn’t see as many boar in the cane brake and savanna areas as we expected. This was a good way to end a great hunt, for the next day we would be going to Paynes Prairie to a knapp- in where we would roast up some wild boar and share it with our friends. Many of whom are at the highest level of craftsmanship and art in the flint knapping field.