Love at first toss
Altadena’s Roland Trevino rediscovers the ancient atlaTL
By Christopher Nyerges 05/21/2009
Our romanticized picture of Paleolithic man is all muscled-out, a 30-something Arnold-like figure wearing a loincloth and hunting big game with spears and atlatls. Whether that’s really the way things were is a topic for another day, but the fact remains that the atlatl is an ancient weapon which is making a comeback.
The atlatl (usually pronounced “at-lattle”) is an ancient technological improvement over the hand-held spear — essentially a wooden stick used to hurl the spear. While a spear might have the same diameter as an archery bow, it is typically twice as long. The atlatl acts as an extension of the arm, and it is believed that the atlatl-thrown spear generates three times the force of a freehand throw.
The atlatl has been used on every continent except Antarctica, adds Altadena’s Roland Trevino, a 39-year-old attorney and local atlatl enthusiast.
Trevino had been involved with archery since his boyhood in Pasadena, practicing the sport at the range in the lower Arroyo Seco. About five years ago he met Tom Mills, who conducts regular bow-making sessions at the archery range (visit paleoplanet.net) and introduced Trevino to the ancient weapon.
“I really got interested in the history of the atlatl after that and began researching it. I immediately starting working on a traditional design from Mexico, which is used even to this day on Lake Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan. I made my first atlatl exactly to specifications,” he says while showing off his finely crafted spear-thrower. Though his creation was successful, Trevino found that the design was not the most efficient for him — the finger grips were a bit too thick, for one — so it became a wall-hanger. Similar designs are used to hunt waterfowl from canoes. Instead of an arrowhead, those spears employ three iron-pronged bars.
More recently, “Tom Mills gave my wife Marikan and our children small atlatls which seemed lightweight, but they worked very well. They are of Basketmaker design, named after an American Southwest civilization that made this style of atlatl,” explains Trevino.
Trevino also told me about petroglyphs he saw in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park that showed indigenous people using atlatls. And then there are the famous confrontations between the Aztecs and Spanish. The Aztecs actually won many of the initial battles by using their atlatl spears, which could be he hurled with lethal impact far further than the range of the Spanish black-powder muskets.
Trevino practices with his bows and atlatls about once a week. With the atlatl, he uses targets at 15 and 20 yards, the standard distances for atlatl-throwing competitions.
Besides his art-piece atlatl, Trevino is in the process of making others of various designs. He also experiments with the corresponding spears, which can be up to seven feet long.
“Some Arctic peoples used short darts thrown from kayaks,” explains Trevino, “but the spear must bend to work right, since it harnesses, stores and releases energy when it bends. The longer they are, the better — but I am experimenting.”
To craft his spears, Trevino has used bamboo as well as the Arundo donax reed, common all over California. “Either will work,” he says, adding that the key is to get them as straight as possible and to use hardwood foreshafts. “I think the Arundo donax makes an excellent spear. It’s a very invasive plant and no one minds if you cut them. I find the very thin ones, cut them when green, tie them up and let them dry for a few months until they turn brown and get hard,” Trevino explains.
For your own research, Trevino suggests searching online. In June, the World Atlatl Association will conduct some competitions in the Arroyo Seco. For details, visit at paleoplanet.net.
Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and author of “How To Survive Anywhere.” Contact him through christophernyerges.com or send mail to PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.