Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Speaking of discoveries… how about the wheel?


Okay, so this is a little later than I promised. And shorter. And less funny. But here it is anyways!


I remember seeing a Gary Larson cartoon on one of my professors door. I think one of that largest contributions to academia was The Far Side. Those single panel comics litter the doors in the hallowed halls of academia. I have seen many of these comics in presentations and lectures- Larson is a genius and his almost universal adoption by academics speaks volumes to his creativity.

He also has an insect, a beetle, and a butterfly named after him. Also, and I swear to god this is true, paleontologists refer to a large group of spikes on the end of a dinosaurs tail as a “Thagomizer” based on one of his cartoons.

I love it when scientist don’t take themselves to seriously. Like Neil Degrasse Tyson calling the Big Bang the “Horrendous Space Kablooie” a name coined by Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes. Or the use of the term “shmoo“.

Anyways, back on topic.

The comic that started that little side bar was one about the invention of a knife. Being sold by a caveman street vendor. With a crowd gathered around his soap-box like stone, clothed in animal carcasses, the vendor proudly announces that with the “amazing new knife” you only have to wear the skins of animals.

Some inventions are so pivotal that it’s hard to imagine how we got along without them. Take the wheel for example.

Now that was a good one.

The wheel was invented about 5000 years ago, in three different places- Southern Russia, Mesopotamia, and Central Europe. The dates are pretty close together, and each area has legitimate arguments for having the first evidence of the wheel. In modern day Slovenia archaeologist found the preserved remains of a wooden wheel. Radio carbon dates associated with this wheel place it about 5100 years ago. Though this is the oldest actual wheel ever found, the Bronocice pot, found in Poland during the 1970s depicts a four wheeled vehicle, and was found with aurochs bones and rope tied in what appears to be a early yoke. Aurochs would eventually become modern cattle, so it’s not surprising to find them associated with beast of burden. The line drawing of a wagon does show a shaft in which an animal could be hitched. Though not direct evidence of wheeled vehicles, I find it fairly convincing. In Mesopotamia around the same time images of wheeled sledges occur in pictographs and about 500 year later on the Royal Standard of Ur.

So we have the wheel by about 5000 years ago, in at least three places, and within the next thousand years it spread throughout Europe and into the Indus Valley in India.With the invention of spoked wheels, humans were able to make lighter, faster moving wheels while maintaining the stability needed to carry heavy loads.Chariots begin to appere about three and half thousand years ago, and army’s become more mobile- changing the face of warfare. Though if I’m honest, everything we do changes the ace of warfare.

Suck it Spartacus!

What’s interesting to me about the invention of the wheel is how long it took to get going. I mean its a pretty simple idea really. But it needs a bunch of other stuff before it becomes useful. Like relatively smooth roads, or beasts of burden. You can’t put the cart before the Auroch so to speak.

It’s not like other cultures never thought of it. I used to get these types comments when talking to tourists in Belize. I would be asked how they built the temples. When describing the way they were constructed (basically it involves filling in a large amount of area with fairly large limestone boulders, I would occasionally get an amazed head-shake, coupled with the comment “And all that without the use of any technology, not even the wheel”. This was often followed with the mystery-inducing hushed question “how did they do it?”.

If I was feeling punchy, I would reply with the significantly less mysterious answer: “Well, I got all the rock out of there… and I didn’t have a wheel”.

If human beings really want to do something we will. Mesoamerica is actually a good example of the necessities required before the wheel becomes practical. There are a bunch of examples of wheels from Ancient Mesoamerica. Almost all of them on toys. These are true wheels, with axles and everything. But we have no evidence of larger, more industrial machinery. Perhaps the lack of smooth road prevented their use. Maybe the lack of beasts of burden (the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmec civilizations had no domesticated large animals), they may have just found it easier to use man power and carry things on their back. Having spent sometime walking through the Mayan highlands, I can tell you that wheels are likely of very little use in the jungle. We don’t really no why the wheel wasn’t used- but we kn ow they had the idea. They developed it independently, around 2000 years ago. To the best of your knowledge they just didn’t use it in the same way as the old world did.

This suggests, at least to me, that it’s a pretty simple idea to come up with, but not necessarily the game changer its represented to be. Instead it only works in the right context.

It also reminds me of another Larson cartoon

Funny stuff Mr. Larson. Funny Stuff.