The Bow Drill in North America

It’s been a long  held belief that the Bow and Drill was used in North America, by Native Americans, as the principle means of starting fire. However, evidence, or lack there of, suggests that simply isn’t true, Not on the West Coast and Not on the East coast. In fact, the only historical evidence there is for it’s use is in Canada and above. So what was used then? The handdrill.

In 1934, Paul S. Martin wrote an anthropological article outlining how fire was started in North America. Much of the information came from historical documents of travelers as they logged their encounters with indigenous people and witnessed how these people indeed started fire.

From the document:

It has been generally agreed by various authorities that the bow and drill, whether used for fire fire-making or for drilling, was confined to northern North America. Wissler says,

… Among the Eskimo we find drills turned by a strap pulled back and forth and also operated by a strong bow… The only other new World localities in which these forms of drilling occur are among Northern Algonkin. From the native sketches in Mexican codices and the references of early writers, we infer that the universal mode of drilling was by rolling between the palms of the hands… It appears that in aboriginal times practically the whole New World kindled fire with the simple hand-drill. Only among Eskimo and a few of the adjoining Indians were other types of drill in use, as may be inferred from the preceding discussion.

McGuire makes the following statement,

The use of the bow-drill in North America appears to be confined chiefly to the Alaskan North Canadian aborigines, among who it is quite common.

Hough reports,

Among the Northern Indians in central and northern Canada, however, the bow is used. Sir Daniel Wilson, in his work on Prehistoric Man, notes that the Red Indians of Canada use the drill bow… It is perhaps true that some of the Dakotas did use the bow at times, but it is not correct to place it as the customary tool of the whole stock. On the contrary, there is evidence that they used the simple means…

As one makes their way through the report, there is no evidence to suggest the bow and drill was used anywhere in North America for fire starting. However, the reports says there is evidence to suggest it was used by the pueblo Indians in the Southwest for drilling holes. This because the drill had a stone tip.

If you would like to read the compelling article, as it appeared in American Anthropologist, please visit

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1934.36.1.02a00080/pdf