Just outside the high-tech setting of Harvard’s Biological Laboratories, students were engaged in a decidedly low-tech activity: throwing spears across the quad.
A group of six were trying their hands at using an atlatl, an ancient spear-throwing device that by 10,000 B.C. had spread around the world, according to Andrew Majewski, education specialist for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and the instructor of the Wintersession course.
Simple in design and use, the atlatl is essentially a short stick, roughly 2 feet long, with a spur or hook on one end to hold the butt of a thin, light spear, sometimes fletched like an arrow and called a dart. During a talk in the Peabody Museum’s education classroom before students headed outside, Majewski explained that the atlatl — developed thousands of years before the bow and arrow — works by giving the thrower additional leverage that can greatly increase the force of the throw.
The advantage in range and velocity made a big difference to prehistoric hunters, Majewski said, allowing them to take aim at megafauna such as mammoths without having to get dangerously close.
“It was as revolutionary a technology for these people as the computer is for us,” Majewski said. “It allowed people to hunt big game for the first time.”
Students had to master the tricky balancing act involved in preparing for a throw, with the atlatl cocked aside their heads and a dart nocked onto the spur and balanced on top. The dart is held in place with a forefinger and thumb while the other three fingers grip the atlatl handle. During the throw, students had to release the two fingers and the dart at the right point while keeping hold of the atlatl.
After the first tentative tosses — and with coaching and encouragement from Majewski — students gained confidence. Darts flew through the air and skipped over the hard ground, skittering into a snow bank.
“What we’re doing now is considered experiential archaeology, understanding the lives of our forebears by trying their skills ourselves,” Majewski said.