28th July 2012: Prehistoric Olympics

Now that the London Olympics have started, it got me thinking about what sort of sporting events could have taken place during prehistory and how they would have worked.


Archery would be the obvious choice, as it has not really changed that much since its invention around 10,000BP - a bow, an arrow and the skill of the archer. The sport had its debut at the 1900 Summer Olympics and has been contested in 14 Olympiads.  These days modern bow’s draw weight is around 22Kg for men (over 17kg for women) and the arrows have a diameter of between 9.3mm and 5.5mm, very different from my home-made Holmegaard bow and flint-tipped hazel shaft arrows. The object of the Olympic sport is to shoot arrows as close to the centre of a target as possible from a distance of 70m. Olympic targets are 122cm in diameter, with the gold ring at the centre (worth a maximum 10 points) measuring just 12.2cm.

Archery is governed by the World Archery Federation and in London, there are men's events, women's events and team events.

My Prehistoric Olympics version would start before shooting at the targets:

  • Preliminaries: Making the arrows from scratch (using a hazel rod straightened over fire; knapping a barbed and tanged flint arrow head; fletching with goose feathers)
  • Heat qualifiers: Crafting the bow from a wood stave and making the bow string from natural cordage
  • Finals: Shooting at a moving target, aiming at a "kill-zone" and achieving a sufficient penetration to inflict a fatal wound

Click here > Learn how to fletch your own primitive arrows

Atlatl Throwing

Known as the Atlatl (pronounced at-lat-al or atal-atal) in the America's (Woomera in Australia) is an ancient spear-throwing weapon that uses leverage to achieve great velocity and distance of the projectile. It was developed in Europe more than 20,000 years ago and in North America about 12,000 years ago, well before the bow and arrow and is probably one of mankind's first mechanical inventions. Atlatl comes from Nuttal's (1891) translation of two Aztec (Nahautl) words - one meaning 'throwing' and the other 'on water'.

Today the sport is governed by the World Atlatl Association (WAA) . Founded in 1987, WAA promotes events for long-distance throwing and target throwing in North America nd Europe.

My Prehistoric Olympics version would include:

  • Distance Throwing: The world record for wooden Atlatl's stands now at 230.48m, thrown by Ilkka Kontinaho (Finland) using a 30" birch atlatl and a 58", 860-grain self wood dart. The longest recorded throw using modern materials and designs is 258.64m, held by Dave Engvall.
  • Target Throwing: The International Standard Accuracy Competition (ISAC) was invented by Lloyd Pine in 1996 to allow comparison among atlatlists all over the world. The ISAC is the longest running standardised event and one of the few for which rules are carefully obeyed and records maintained.

Click here > Learn how to make your own Atlatl

(Cave) Bear Wrestling

Not for the faint-hearted, but a key element of the story/film Clan of the Cave Bear. Wrestling black and brown bears has been an unofficial and illegal (see below) activity in some countries, although many people have been mauled to death. The origins of bear wrestling are unclear, but probably go back to the late 19th century America, where wrestling was a national pastime; carnivals/circus traveled around the country and offered a cash reward to the person that could pin a bear. Trained bears with a muzzle and often declawed, where used for wrestling (and dancing) and by 1900, E.K. Fernandez was exhibiting a bear named "Alice Teddy" as a wrestler. The first nationally famous wrestling bear was the amazing Victor and for years he traveled the US, wrestling with Dick Beyer (aliases Dr. X and The Destroyer) - in 1965, they wrestled at Los Angeles, CA - Olympic Auditorium.

A 140-pound high school wrestler and four-time state champ, wrestles a 650-pound black bear called Ceaser Jr.

Louisiana Revised Statute Title 14 Section 102.10 states that:
  1. Any person who intentionally commits any of the following shall be guilty of bear wrestling:
    • Promotes, engages in, or is employed by anyone who conducts a bear wrestling match.
    • Receives money for the admission of another person to a place kept for bear wrestling matches.
    • Sells, purchases, possesses, or trains a bear for a bear wrestling match.
  2. For the purposes of this Section, a “bear wrestling match” means a match or contest between one or more persons and a bear for the purpose of fighting or engaging in a physical altercation.
  3. Whoever commits the crime of bear wrestling shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.*


Bolas (from Spanish bola, "ball", also known as boleadoras, or Inca ayllo) are a throwing weapon made of three (stone or wood) weights on the ends of interconnected cords, designed to capture animals by entangling their legs. They have been found, as part of a Stone Age lithic tool at the Calico Early Man Site, located near Barstow in San Bernardino County in the central Mojave Desert of southern California.

My Prehistoric Olympics version would have the following events:

  • Target: Accuracy of launching Bolas over 10-20m
  • Distance: Using the same technique as the Olympic hammer throw

Click here > Learn how to make your own Bolas (external site)


The bullroarer (also knows as the rhombus, or turndun) is an ancient musical instrument and a device historically used for communicating over greatly extended distances. It dates to the Paleolithic, being found in Ukraine dating from 17,000 BC. It consists of a weighted wooden aerofoil attached to a long cord and normally, the wooden aerofoil is trimmed down to a sharp edge around the edges, making the characteristic roaring vibrato sound with notable sound modulations occurring from the rotation of the roarer along its longitudinal axis, and the choice of whether a shorter or longer length of cord is used to spin the bullroarer.

My Prehistoric Olympics version would have the following events:

  • Duration Roaring: How long could a contestant keep swinging the bullroarer
  • Loudness of Roaring: How many decibels could a contestant create by swinging the bullroarer
  • Tossing the Bullroarer: Using the same technique as the Olympic hammer throw
  • Gymnastic Bullroaring: Scored on artistic use of bullroarer and accompaniment to music

Coracle Slalom

This could be a new and interesting Olympic sport - white water coracle slalom.......

Perhaps not, however there are annual Coracle races, such as:

  • The  Macmillan Coracle Relay World Championship - up to 48 teams of four compete to cross the River Severn and back four times in the shortest time
  • The coracle races on the River Teifi near the Castle ruins, at Cilgerran Festive Week
  • The Coracle Regatta at Ironbridge Rowing Club, Telford

Click here > Learn how to make your own Coracle

Fire-hardened Spear Throwing

The Olympic equivalent would be the Javelin that was introduced to the Olympic Games in the 1908 London Games. The men's javelin should weigh at least 800 grams and measure between 2.6m and 2.7m in length, while the women's javelin is required to weigh at least 600 grams and measure between 2.2m and 2.3m in length. Andreas Thorkildsen created a new men's Olympic record with a throw of 90.57m in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Fire hardened spears were first used as thrusting devises for hunting at close quarters. Four wooden spears from around 400,000 BCE were found by Hartmut Thieme and are the oldest human-made wooden spears ever found. The 2m spears were found in soil whose acids had been neutralised by a high concentration of chalk near the coal pit. Three of the spears were probably made for throwing, as their weight and tapered points are at the front of the spear to allow a straight flight, similar to the design of a modern javelin.

Click here > Learn how to make your own Fire-hardened Spear

Friction Fire-Starting:

With several methods of starting a fire using little more than wood and friction, a fire-starting race would be another obvious choice for Prehistoric Olympics.


The sling is an ancient weapon (remember Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear and David and Goliath) and could be adapted as an Olympic sport. Slings were known by Neolithic tribes around the Mediterranean (Mallorcan or Balearic ), but it seems likely that the sling is much older. It is possible that the sling was invented during the Upper Paleolithic at a time when new technologies, such as the atlatl and the bow and arrow, were emerging, but the hunting activity is now being practiced as a sport.

The Balearic Sling Competitions see men, women and children throw 10 stones each at target between 10 - 30m distance away. Points are scored by hitting the either the 1.2m target or 50cm bulls eye iron circle. Each year around 12 to 15 competitions are held and the top top ranked man, woman, and child are proclaimed the champion of their category.

The current world record (Guinness Book of World Records) for the greatest distance achieved in hurling an object from a sling is 477.10m using a 127cm long sling and a 62g dart. This was achieved by David Engvall on 13th September 1992 at Baldwin Lake, California (US).

Archeolympics & Stone Age Olympics:

The 5th annual Archeolympics was held in Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site, in Texas (US).

Organised by the Shumla Archeological Research & Education Center, over 75 participants competed in four events for individuals and teams:

  • Rabbit Stick throwing
  • Atlatl throwing
  • Friction fire-starting Race using a simple Hand Drill
  • Cordage making

SHUMLA (Studying Humans Use of Materials, Land & Art) is a non-profit archeological research and education centre working internationally to connect people of all ages with the land and their cultural heritage.

The 3rd Annual Stone Age Olympics & Knap-in is to be held on 23rd September 2012 at Coyote Hills Regional Park, 8000 Patterson Ranch Road, Fremont, CA 94555. Events include an atlatl International Standard Accuracy Competition (ISAC).

Caveman Decathlon :

If you like the idea of more athletic and energetic prehistoric olympics events, then try the Caveman Decathlon an evolutionary new fitness event.

Sprinting away from an attacking animal, desperately crashing through a dense wooded forest, hunting with a spear and sling, hauling your game home to the rest of the tribe, climbing up steep slopes, hauling rocks for building materials, and chasing an antelope until it slows down from exhaustion — Could you survive in the wild?

The 10 events are:

There are online videos of how to perform the main events, ideas on how to make the equipment, ways to sponsor and register. The overall goal of the events is to promote fitness among underserved youth by providing funding for education and athletic equipment

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