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Making a point

Newbury resident shares her knowledge of a weapon dating from the Paleolithic Age, when mammoths were not easy prey

Devin Batchelder shows Boxford Cub Scout Will Kennedy, 8, how to hold and throw an atlatl in Boxford last month. Devin Batchelder shows Boxford Cub Scout Will Kennedy, 8, how to hold and throw an atlatl in Boxford last month. (Greg M. Cooper for The Boston Globe)
By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2010

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When members of Boxford Cub Scout Pack 57 met a gold medal winner during their recent annual summer overnight outing, they were also learning about human history.

Although what was really fun for most of them was watching a 6-foot dart fly through the air, launched from an atlatl — a primitive weapon that is now being used in its own sport.

“It’s experimental archeology — trying out something to understand the history of it better,’’ explained Devin Batchelder of Newbury, 21, the atlatl champion who gave the demonstration. “It helps you to understand how difficult primitive people had it when they would go to hunt animals. This gives you a better appreciation of it.’’

If Batchelder is not your typical gold medal winner, she fits her atypical sport.

The 2007 Triton Regional High School graduate has a 3.93 cumulative average with a double major (anthropology and environmental science) at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., with a minor in biology. This summer, she’s doing two internships, one with an environmental consultant and the other with the Parker River Clean Water Association, where she’s working on a project involving invasive species.

She’s also president of the school’s Anthropology Club. It was there that the former high school tennis player discovered the atlatl.

“It’s a fun after-school activity, something anyone is welcome to try,’’ she said.

The atlatl is a weapon from the Paleolithic Age that anthropologists believe was invented sometime after the spear but before the bow and arrow. An important tool in human evolution, it is a dart-launcher that employs leverage to achieve greater distance.

“You wind back, lean forward, and release the dart,’’ said Batchelder, who explained that some have thrown the 6-foot darts as far as 230 meters — or as she described to the Scouts, “more than two football fields.’’ Her own personal best is 45 meters.

“I’m better at accuracy,’’ said Batchelder, who won her gold medal for best overall female performance at the Chimney Point (Vt.) Atlatl Competition last fall, sponsored by the World Atlatl Association. She consistently hit a series of targets 15 to 20 meters away. While modern versions of the atlatl are made of various materials such as graphite, competitions require that for the majority of throws, the atlatl and darts must be made of wood or bamboo.

According to Franklin Pierce professor Robert Goodby, adviser to the Anthropology Club, most of those involved with the sport are interested in anthropology and archeology. There are a few organized teams, including Franklin Pierce and the University of Vermont.

The Franklin Pierce team competes about twice a year, Batchelder said. It also gives demonstrations, including at the Museum of Science in Boston and at national conferences of the Archeology Institute of America, which have been held in Chicago, Philadelphia, and this year in Anaheim, Calif.

“We practice once or twice a week, whenever somebody wants to go out and have fun,’’ Batchelder said.

The earliest evidence of the atlatl, she said, is from 27,000 years ago in France, though some form of an atlatl has been found in various cultures. According to the World Atlatl Association Inc. website, the first known atlatls were found at European Upper Paleolithic sites in France and Spain.

Using an atlatl, like re-creating the stone tools found at archeological sites (an exercise Goodby has students participate in), helps a student understand the experience of early humans. The atlatl was an improvement over the spear because it allowed the hunter to attack from a distance, in a situation where predator could easily become prey.

“If you were going to go hunting a 3,000-pound mammoth with big sharp tusks, the further away you could be, the better,’’ said Goodby.

“The atlatl allows you to stand farther back from your prey,’’ Batchelder said. “It acts as an extension of your arm, and helps the dart go farther. It’s like adding an extra joint.

“Imagine throwing the ball without the wrist. It wouldn’t go as far,’’ she explained. Then, in a similar scenario, by adding another “joint’’ — the atlatl — “it goes farther and with a great deal more force.’’

The Boxford Cub Scouts and their adult counterparts would concur with that assessment, but mostly they found it a blast to fling.

“I think it’s kind of fun,’’ said Grace Campbell, 10, sister of Cub Scout Dylan, one of the first to throw the dart farther than the hay bale Batchelder had set up as a target practice. Added Scout Colby Fecteau, 8, “I liked the feeling of kind of slamming it in the air.’’

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