Ancient Technology: Reinvent the Wheel?

It’s a common trope in cartoons that the wheel was the first major invention of humankind (I would put a Far Side cartoon here, but they are notoriously litigious about internet use, so follow this link to see the image). Nevermind that most of these depictions show some “caveman”-type person using a hammer and chisel (tools) to make the wheel. Far from being the first invention, the wheel was preceded by stone tools (2.5–1.5 million years ago), fire (1.5 million years ago) tents (750,000 years ago [ya]), glue (80,000 ya), painting (75,000 ya) arrows (75,000–20,000 ya), ocean-going boats (45,000 ya), sewn clothing and cloth (28,000 ya), pottery (15,000 ya), animal (dog) domestication (13,000 ya), plant domestication (9,000 BCE), copper (8,000 BCE), towns with walls (8,000 BCE), and smelting ore (6,000 BCE), just to name a few.

The Wheel

The early wheel may have indeed been a long cylinder, but made of wood, not stone (image source).

The wheel was invented twice, once near southeastern Europe and Mesopotamia around 4,000 BCE and again in Mesoamerica around the year 1 CE — one revolutionized land transportation, the other was a toy. The Old World wheel likely grew out of the use of sledges: big, heavy, wooden platforms with runners used to pull weights over snow or flat land. Sometimes logs would be put under the runners and the rolling action would ease their movement, but the logs would roll out the back of the sledge and have to be repositioned in front. And then a smart cookie figured out that they could trap the logs under the sledge by putting a peg behind it and thus the sledge could roll continually on a large wheel-axle, much like we saw in the documentary series The Flintstones, except that it would have been made of log, not stone and it would have rolled under the platform, not in the crook of a tree trunk.


The next step was the invention of disc-like wheels attached to axles. This would have been made of planks fastened together and cut round. While depictions of wheeled vehicles (or sledges on rollers) date back to the 4th millennium BCE, we don’t have actual wagons in the archaeological record until about 2500 BCE, which is not surprising, as the organic material of many early technologies was not preserved.

Another interesting tidbit is that the same word for wagon or wheel is attested across early Old World languages. Early writing systems record girgir (Sumerian) and galgal (Hebrew), while historical linguistics give us gorgal (Georgian) and *kwel-kwel (Indo-European) as well as possibly gulu and gukluk (Mandarin and Cantonese).

Why a Post on the Wheel?

I’m bringing up the wheel as the sine qua non of ancient technology to introduce a new segment on the blog. As we’re focused on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, we’re looking back to a time before fossil fuels were available for insights into housing, clothing, feeding, and transporting ourselves. We’re not advocating a return to preindustrial days, but we don’t want to dismiss valuable techniques and solutions of the past either. In the future, I’ll be introducing some different technologies and then bringing you follow ups as I use and test them.

Data for this post came from:

Fagan, Brian M. (ed.). 2004. The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World. London: Thames & Hudson.

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