The Polynesian Pump Drill

Posted by on April 5, 2012

Umi Kai operating a pump drill replica he made while Dr. Sinoto looks on.

How do you drill holes in things when you lack power tools? The ancient Polynesians came up with an ingenious answer- the pump drill. Pump drills were used to drill small, regular holes. They were fashioned from wooden vertical spindles and a wooden horizontal cross-piece. Flywheel weights were typically fashioned from coral, and the bit was often made from shell or shark’s teeth, although after European contact nails were rapidly adopted. These complete drilling rigs with drill points allowed Polynesians to make holes in fishhook blanks and to prepare the complex rigging systems for their voyaging canoes. Archaeologists have found portions of pump drills in archaeological sites across Polynesia. Here you can see a replica of a Tahitian or Ma’ohi example that Dr. Sinoto found on an archaeological site on Huahine in the Society Islands. The flywheel weight is made from a piece of sanded coral. Umi Kai, who made the replica, is working the pump drill into a piece of wood as Dr. Sinoto looks on. You can see how the drill bit begins to leave a mark in the wooden plaque. In the final figure you can see several fishhook tabs (or blanks) recovered from a prehistoric Hawaiian house site in Kohala on the Big Island. The first two objects are a bone tab (a) and a pearl shell tab (b)- they represent the first stage of fishhook manufacture. In the next stage the inside of the tab needs to be worked- this can either be done by drilling a hole with a pump drill (c and d), or by using a file to cut out the interior (e).

4 Responses to The Polynesian Pump Drill

  1. james hohaia

    To Dr.Yosihiko Sinoto,i find myself on a journey, to find out more about my Seafaring Ancestors.I am Maori & my Tribe is NgaPuhi.On this journey i found an article posted by Hana Hou! magazine.A small Bio on your life’s passion for Archaeology.As i read this article by Derek Ferra,i was taken by the “Passion” and “Aroha” you displayed when speaking of the people of Polynesia. Not only for myself, my family, and my Ancestors,i need to say “Thank you” .I have read a lot on my quest of where,when,why?which,& who? on my ancestors. I have read a lot of theories out there on the subject, that make it to print,which i beleave are held together by a shoe string.At this stage i’m working on a”Theory” based a the time frame of the migration, of the 7 wakas that left Rarotonga to NZ.

  2. Teresa

    Very nice! The pump drill replica turned out very nicely. Can’t wait to see it on display in Polynesian Hall next year.

    • Jenny

      It did turn out really well! And it works too! Umi did such a good job on all of our replicas, he is really an amazing artist.

  3. Jim Cady

    I am trying to find the origins and approximate dates for pump drills. Could you tell me how old the examples of the pump drills that you have excavated are?

    Thank you very much.


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