Prehistoric Pump Drills

Subject Areas:
Math, Science, Social Studies

The student will:

One hour to assemble if an adult has drilled the pieces ahead of time

16 inch length of 1 inch diameter dowel

24 inch length of 5/8 inch diameter dowel
12 inch length of 5/8 inch diameter dowel
Stone "arrowhead" point from a rock shop
Piece of river cane
Two rocks or weights
Heavy nylon string
Dental floss
Safety goggles
Electric drill
Epoxy or wood glue

Must Know Info:

small stone tool that is usually at least twice as long as it is wide and has parallel sides; used as a perforator for making holes or as a blade for scraping and cutting.

fishing weight or bola in teardrop shape, ground from heavy lumps of iron ore

stone weight attached to an atlatl weight

a soft rock that has a soapy feel; also called soapstone

The directions for this drill were adapted from a diagram at the Poverty Point State Commemorative Area.

Archaeologists think that the pump drill may have been used by Native Americans to start fires. The pump drill produces heat through friction as it spins and this could have been used to ignite tinder or kindling. The pump drill also does a very good job of drilling, both in wood and stone! Poverty Point people were noted for their stone tools, especially the small microliths used for drilling, punching, and other work. The pump drill could have been used to make holes in beads, pendants, plummets, and bannerstones. Broken bowls made from steatite were mended by drilling holes in the pieces and then tying them back together.

If you attach a one-inch-long "microlith-like" stone point to the end of a pump drill, you can drill a nice hole in very little time. Look at rock shops for replica stone "arrowheads" to use as microliths.

The pump drill may be constructed to drill through either wood or stone. If you want students to drill in wood, attach a stone point as a drill bit. A one-inch piece of river cane is a good bit for drilling a hole in stone, but you must sprinkle sand under the drill. The river cane is hollow and will slide right over the end of the 24 inch dowel. Choose a closely fitting piece so that the river cane doesn't slide around as the pump drill moves. Have extra drill bits handy because river cane splits when it dries.

To work the drill, twirl the horizontal hand piece in one direction to twist up the string. This should cause the hand piece to be pulled up toward the top of the drill. Put your hands on either end of the horizontal hand piece and gently push down. This will start the pump drill spinning! When it has spun all the way in one direction, it will reverse and spin in the opposite direction. As long as you gently move your hands up and down, the pump drill will continue to drill.

Students should be careful NOT to push down too hard on the crosspiece which operates the drill. A gentle up and down motion on the crosspiece is sufficient. After the drill's momentum is established, it will almost operate on its own. If students try to push down really hard or try to make the drill spin very fast, the string holding things together may break. Pieces of drill flying through the air create a dangerous situation! Be careful. Students should wear safety goggles to guard against injury.

Students are fascinated by this hand-operated tool. They really enjoy drilling little holes all over the place. Be sure to set up drilling guidelines and to provide a large flat piece of wood for them.


1. Gather all materials. Cut wood to the appropriate lengths. Drill holes in the dowels.

2. Review directions on Prehistoric Pump Drills handout. Follow directions to attach the stone point and to put the drill pieces together.

3. Students can experiment with using the drill without the weights on the crosspiece. Have them hypothesize what will happen before experimenting. What happens? Why? If students are not familiar with momentum, explain that this is the force which keeps the drill turning. Without the weights, the amount of momentum is reduced.

4. Students will probably comment on the similarity between the prehistoric pump drill and a modern electric drill. Have students create a Venn diagram to compare the two tools.

5. Students may want to conduct research to find out about other historic drills and the cultures which used them. How were drills operated before electricity? What kinds of drills are used today, especially oil drills in Louisiana?

6. What other modern technologies are descended from ancient times? Create a classroom chart which shows the tools of prehistoric and modern technology. As students discover more about mound building cultures, they will be able to fill in the chart with the kinds of tools and compare the various technologies.