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The Klingon chetvI'
The Klingon chetvI'.

In 1983, Paramount Pictures hired linguist Marc Okrand to create a Klingon language for the alien species to appear in the upcoming film "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." His book "The Klingon Dictionary", detailing the grammar and syntax of the Klingon language was very popular, spawning widespread study of this fictional language and several more books. His 1997 book "Klingon for the Galactic Traveler" describes a Klingon weapon called a tlhevjaQ; "a type of spear which employs a chetvI', a stick with a hook at the end, as an aid in throwing." This description is clearly similar to the atlatl and this is where my interest in this weapon began.

You see, I have been a Star Trek fan for quite a long time. My particular interest is in the bumpy-headed warrior race; the Klingons. I have books, collectibles, posters, memorabilia, a costume, full prosthetics, makeup and, of course weapons.

Okrand's mention of the atlatl-like weapon got me interested, but it is the lack of a word for "bow" that really caught my attention. Given the extensive list of other weapons and that the Klingons are a warrior culture, the absence of the bow from such a list would suggest that the Klingons do not use bows or that they are obscure weapons in much the same way that the atlatl is obscure in our own modern culture.

And so, I obtained an atlatl and darts, joined the WAA and began attending events to explore why Humans would, for the most part, abandon the atlatl while the Klingons would never "evolve" into the use of the bow.

Firstly, we need to look at why Humans stopped using the atlatl and began using the bow.

Archeological evidence shows that the atlatl appeared at least 25,000 years ago but it was probably in use as far back as 40,000 years ago. The first compound weapon. The first bows appeared at least 10,000 years at about the same time the atlatl went "out of fashion" but it is likely they were used side-by-side for quite a long time prior to that. We did not give up our regular screwdrivers when the cordless models came along.

But something else was happening at the time that the atlatl faded away and the bow became dominant: the end of the Ice Age. That climactic change also brought about the end of the largest mammals that had helped to sustain mankind through the long, cold; the Mammoth, Irish Elk and Wooly Rhino among them. It could have been the climate change or perhaps man had hunted the large beasts to extinction, but when they were gone, so was the atlatl.

And herein lies the key. The atlatl can deliver much more power more efficiently than a primitive bow. That power is necessary for getting through the tough hide of something like a Mammoth. It is not nearly as accurate as a bow but when you are throwing at a target that is literally the size of the broadside of a barn, one can sacrifice a little accuracy for the penetrative power needed to hit vital organs. When the Mammoth was gone, man turned to the bow, which was much better suited to the smaller game that remained.

Another example comes from the invasion of the Aztec lands by the Spanish Conquistadors. By that time, even though the Aztecs had discontinued the use of the atlatl in favor of the bow for hunting and warfare, but they still knew what the atlatl was. When the Spaniards came with their guns and armor, the Aztecs returned to using the atlatl, which, while less "convenient" than the bow, was able to easily penetrate the steel breastplates at a considerable distance.

So, on Earth when the target has a heavy hide or thick armor, the atlatl was the weapon of choice. Lacking Mammoths and Conquistadors, Humans prefer the bow.

For the Klingons, the situation must have been quite different. Klingons are presented as a warrior race, Mongols, Viking berserkers and Samurai all rolled into one. The are also very tough with extra armor on their skulls and many of their bodily functions backed up with duplicate organs. One could assume that the rest of the wildlife on the Klingon homeworld is similarly difficult to kill. It would seem that one way or another their heavily armored opponents, either heavy-hided prey animals or other Klingons, never went extinct and thus the chetvI' never went out of fashion.

Eventually, modern materials would have able to give the bow more power, By then, however, the invention of firearms might have bypassed the development of the bow which, without the cultural history of the chetvI', would have quickly fallen into obscurity.

One might even speculate that the power of the chetvI' has influence even into modern times. (That is, the Klingons as portrayed in the television show.) I have seen atlatl illustrations (in back issues of this publication) with broad ends or banner stones that make the weapon look like it has wings. With the weapon ready to throw, the combination suggests to me the wing and boom design of the Klingon D-7 and K't'inga-class Battlecruisers.

Of course, this is all pleasant speculation. For one thing, the Klingons, being fictional creations, are not available to expound on their history and culture. For another, Marc Okrand has not yet replied to my letter asking him about the origins of the chetvI'. Why did he assign an atlatl-like weapon to be the primary projectile weapon of the Klingons instead of the bow? Was it simply to be "alien", choosing something people would not be familiar with, or was there more?

We have only speculation and a handful of words. Thankfully, since there are no Klingons around to tell me differently, I allow myself the very Klingonesqe arrogance to declare myself the authority on the subject.

The above article was reprinted in the July 2003 issue of the World Atlatl Association newsletter. -- Revised: 19 April 2003
Copyright © 2003 Kevin A. Geiselman