When Bob Berg gears up for a boar hunt, he doesn’t reach for a gun, or a knife, or even a bow, as his fellow hunters in New York State occasionally do. Instead, he prefers something a little more old school: a 17,000-year-old weapon known as an atlatl.
An atlatl is an ancient dart-thrower, remarkable for both its simplicity and raw power. With just a short strip of wood, Berg can launch a two-metre dart about 90 metres, at speeds up to 160 kilometres an hour. The force is enough to pierce leather armour and bring down fully grown deer. It’s a weapon for sportsmanlike hunters who believe .300-calibre rifles with 40mm Leupold scopes and howitzer-sized bullets make the whole predator-prey relationship slightly one-sided. But for dedicated atlatlists, the appeal goes deeper.
Almost every ancient culture invented some version of the atlatl – Australia’s woomera is a close cousin. Antarctica and sub-Saharan Africa are the only places where the weapon didn’t appear. It’s this near-universality that speaks to many ‘primitive technology’ enthusiasts – a loose-knit community of hunters, survivalists and archaeology buffs who feel atlatls and other prehistoric tools provide them with a tangible link to humanity’s cave-dwelling past.
Berg got hooked on primitive technology when he was 13. “I was running around the ball field at school when I found a Native American arrowhead in the dirt,” he says. Curious, he showed the item to his science teacher, who was equally fascinated. “We sat around looking at it for the whole class.” Berg remembers being enchanted by the skill and time that had clearly gone into the arrowhead. Holding it in his hands, he felt that connection to humanity’s earliest ancestors.
As the years went by, Berg started using his hands to make things, too. He became a professional woodworker, designing furniture for IBM by day and ‘flintknapping’ his own arrowheads by night. Primitive technology remained a hobby until the late ’80s, when Berg encountered a picture of an atlatl in a book. “Shortly after, I happened across a stick that looked almost atlatl-ready. So I just carved it [into shape] a little.” Then he carved another, and another, finessing the design with each iteration to make the darts travel a little further, fly a little more accurately, harpoon fish a little more gracefully.
Berg wasn’t the only guy making atlatls, though in many enthusiasts’ eyes he quickly became the best. “A lot of the atlatls people were making looked shoddy,” Berg says. “I made mine like I was making furniture: I put nice finishes on them, used nice wood.” He sold his first in 1991 and quickly found a steady stream of buyers. By the mid-’90s, making atlatls was Berg’s full-time job. Thunderbird Atlatl, the company he founded with his wife Cheryll, is now the world’s leading manufacturer.
While Berg admits the market for primitive-but-incredibly-deadly dart-throwers is “rather thin”, demand for his handiwork continues to grow. There are a few reasons why. Fear of a climate-change apocalypse has encouraged a lot of people, particularly in America, to bone up on their survivalist skills. Others have picked up atlatls for the sheer sport of it.
Whatever the motivation, atlatl hunters all tend to espouse a similar philosophy: that ancient tools help us connect to a simpler, more ‘authentic’ way of living. Anthropologists baulk at this idea. They argue this narrative simplifies so-called primitive peoples, who are no less complex (or morally virtuous) than their modern counterparts. It’s a valid point: while there are aspects of primitive cultures we could no doubt stand to learn from, to idolise these people (or rather, the idea of them) is to objectify them all the same.
For his part, Berg keeps an air of pragmatism about his trade. He’s got about a thousand atlatls to make a year, not to mention 10,000 individual darts, and philosophising won’t fill orders. There’s a new law of the jungle, even for atlatls – supply and demand.
This story appears in volume 33 of Smith Journal. You can pick it up here.