Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Drills and Drilling Made by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The first drill was a development of the primitive awl, a sharp-­pointed instrument of bone, stone, or copper which was held in one hand, pressed against the object, and turned back and forth until a hole was bored. The point was set in a socket of bone or wood. By setting it in a transverse handle increased pressure and leverage were obtained, with increased penetrating power. Artificially perforated objects of bone, fish bones, ivory, pottery, stone, and wood, common to all periods of the world's history, are found in mounds, caves, shell-heaps, and burial places of the Indians. The holes vary from an eighth to a half inch in diameter, and from a fourth of an inch to 6 in. or more in depth. Shell, bone, and stone were drilled to make beads. Stone pipes with bowl and stem openings of different sizes were common, and whistles were made of stone and bone. Tubes in stone, several inches long, with walls scarcely an eighth of an inch thick, were accurately drilled. The columella of the Busycon shell was bored through for beads. The graceful butterfly-shaped objects found throughout E. United States were perforated with surprising accuracy. It has been said that in prehistoric times the natives bored holes through pearls by means of heated copper spindles. The points of drills were made of copper rolled into a hollow cylinder or of pieces of reed, or of solid metal, stone, shell, or wood. Boring by means of hollow drills was usual among all early races of Europe, Asia, and Africa; it was common also in Mexico, and instances are not rare in the mounds of Ohio and elsewhere in the United States, but in North America solid drill points were generally employed. Grass and bristles were also used as drills, being worked by twirling between the thumb and the index finger. Points of hard stone or metal usually out by direct contact, but where the points were of wood, dry or wet sand proved more effectual. At times the points were separate from the shafts and were firmly attached to the latter by strings of hide or vegetal fibre. The rapidity with which a drill cuts depends on the velocity of the revolution, the weight and size of its different parts, the hardness of the abrading material and of the object drilled, the diameter of the hole, and its depth. The point used is indicated by the form of the perforation. The frequency with which objects are found bored from both sides is proof that the Indian appreciated the advantage of reducing friction. Progress in the elaboration of drills consisted mainly in heightening speed of revolution. If the drill-point be of wood, much depends on its hardness, for when too hard the wood grinds the sand to powder while if it be too soft the grains catch at the base of the cavity and cut away the shaft. Only wood of proper texture holds the sand as in a matrix and enables it to cut to the best advantage. The insides of drill holes show by the character of their striae whether the cutting was accomplished by direct pressure or with the aid of sand.


The simplest form of drill was a straight shaft, varying from a fourth to three-fourths of an inch in diameter and from 10 in. to 2 ft. in length. This shaft was revolved in alternating directions between the hands, or, when the shaft was held horizontally, it was rolled up and down the thigh with the right hand, the point of the drill being pressed against the object held in the left hand; or at times the object was held between the naked feet while the drill was revolved between the hands. This drill was in use at the time of Columbus and is the only one represented in the Mexican codices (Kingsborough, Antiq. of Mex ., I, pl. 39). With the exception of the strap drill, which was apparently used only in the far N., this is the only form of drill referred to by early American writers.


The strap drill, used both as a fire drill and as a perforator, is an improvement on the shaft drill, both in the number of its revolutions and in the pressure which may be imparted to the shaft. The shaft is kept in position by means of the headpiece of wood, which is held in the teeth. A thong that is wound once round the shaft, one end being held in each hand, is pulled alternately to the right and to the left. The thong was sometimes furnished with hand pieces of bone or bear's teeth to give a firmer grip to the strap. This drill, apparently known to the cave people of France, as it certainly was to the early peoples of Greece, Egypt, and India, has been used by the Greenlanders from early times and is employed also by the Aleut. To a person using the strap drill the jar to the teeth and head is at first quite severe, but much of the disagreeable sensation disappears with use.


Closely related to the strap drill, but a great improvement over the latter, is the bow drill, which can be revolved with much greater speed. The head piece of the bow drill is held in position with the left hand, while the strap is attached to the two ends of a bow, and after wrapping around the shaft, as with the strap drill, is alternately revolved by a backward and forward motion of the bow


The pump drill, still employed in the arts, is said to have been known to the Iroquois and is used by the Pueblo Indians. This drill consists of a shaft which passes through a disc of stone, pottery, or wood, and a cross piece through which the shaft also runs; to each end of the cross-piece is attached a string or buckskin thong having sufficient play to allow it to cross the top of the shaft and to permit the cross-piece to reach close to the disc. This disc is turned to wind the string about the shaft; this raises the crosspiece. By pressing down the crosspiece after a few turns have been taken, the shaft is made to revolve and the disc receives sufficient impetus to rewind the string, which by successive pressure and release, continues the reciprocal movement necessary to cutting. The speed attained by the pump drill is much greater than with the bow drill or the strap drill, and the right hand is left free to hold the object that is being drilled. The pump drill, although long in common use among the Pueblo Indians, is probably of foreign origin.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 133-134.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College