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: Invention of the wheel, in earliest forms. Source: KosshkaMebiusa/Adobe Stock

A Revolutionary Invention: Tracing the Origins of Ancient Wheels

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A Revolutionary Invention: Tracing the Origins of Ancient Wheels

In today’s world, technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The latest gadget today is tomorrow’s antique. As a result of this rapid development of technology, we often take things for granted. One of these is the wheel. Take a look around, and you will see wheels everywhere, be it as tyres, or in everyday machinery. The wheel has even been imbued with symbolic meanings, most famously, perhaps, as a metaphor for the never-ending cycle of life.

Impact on Early Civilizations

One may be tempted to think that thewheel is just a humble or even primitive invention compared to some of the fancy gadgets that we have today. Nevertheless, the wheel (specifically as a means of transportation) was actually invented at a relatively late point of human history. The oldest knownwheel found in an archaeological excavation is fromMesopotamia, and dates to around 3500 BC. This period was known as theBronze Age, which is a relatively late chapter in the story of the development of human civilization. By this time, human beings were already planting crops, herding domesticated animals, and had some form of social hierarchy.

A depiction of an onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian "battle standard of Ur". (Public Domain)

One of the reasons why the wheel was invented only at this point in history is due to the fact that metaltools were needed to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. This leads to the next reason – the wheel was not just a cylinder rolling on its edge. It was a cylinder that was connected to a stable, stationary platform. This wheel-axle concept was a stroke of genius, but making it was a challenge. The ends of the axle, as well as the holes in the center of the wheels had to be nearly perfectly smooth and round. Failing to achieve this would result in too much friction between these components, and the wheel would not turn. Although the axle had to fit snugly in the holes of the wheels, they had to have enough room to allow them to rotate freely. In ourAncient Origins article, we illustrate how the Iron Age chariot axle represents a rare instance of ancient technology.

Given the complexity of the wheel-axle combination, it may be unsurprising that the wheel was not initially invented for transportation purposes. Instead, it has been claimed that wheels were first used by potters. Remember the 5,500-year-old wheel for Mesopotamia? It seems that it was a potters’ wheel (the use of wheels forpottery making may date even further back into theNeolithic). It seems that the use of wheels for transportation only happened 300 years later.

The earliest wheels are believed to have been used for pottery making. (Public Domain)

Although the world’s oldest wheel has been found in Mesopotamia, the earliest images of wheeled carts were found in Poland and elsewhere in the Eurasian steppes. Some have suggested that due to the immense challenge that the invention of the wheel posed to mankind, it probably happened only once, and spread from its place of origin to other parts of the world. However, others believe it developed independently in separate parts of the world at around the same time.  For example, The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is a wooden wheel that was found in the capital of Slovenia in 2002 and was dated to 3150 BC. At present, the birthplace of the wheel is said to be either in Mesopotamia or theEurasian steppes. Although Mesopotamia has the oldest known wheel, linguistic evidence is used to support the claim that the wheel originated in the Eurasian steppes.

This Ljubljana Marshes Wheel with axle is the oldest wooden wheel yet discovered dating to Copper Age (3130 BC) (Petar Milošević/CC BY-SA 4.0)

While the wheel revolutionized early human travel and the transportation of goods, it was not a perfect invention. For instance,camels were a much more efficient form of transportation in the desert environment when compared to the wheel. It has also been claimed that between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD, the camel supplanted the wheel as the primary mode of transport in the Middle East and North Africa.

Nevertheless, the wheel was still used for domestic purposes, such as for irrigation, milling, and pottery making. This shows the various uses of the wheel, and its importance to mankind. I guess we ought to change our perspective about the wheel, and not view it as a basic invention by ‘primitive man’. Instead, we should view it as one of the great achievements of human society.

Top image: Invention of the wheel, in earliest forms. Source:KosshkaMebiusa/Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty

References

Bellis, M., 2014. The Invention of the Wheel. Available at: http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventions/a/wheel.htm

Gambino, M., 2009. A Salute to the Wheel.  Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/?no-ist

Slaughter, J., 2014. History: Invention of the Wheel. Available at: http://www.notap.gov.ng/content/history-invention-wheel

Wikipedia, 2014. Wheel. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel

Wolchover, N., 2012. Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/18808-invention-wheel.html

 

 

Comments

Plus too, about the caves, they would have been difficult for pregnant woman raising children and not convenient so I think the idea of "cave men" is pretty romanticized. I would argue that these caves coulld have been more like ancient clubs where adolescents gathered and not where the families lived, generally speaking.

Somehow, teenagers didn't think to act like teenagers until very recently because it wouldn't be politically correct to say that ancient humans liked to party away from the grown-ups and small children

If art of wooly mammoth existed it would be at least 11-12k old. But there's not. Also the sabre tooth tiger, but there's not of him either. Now you have two examples !
Care to make yourself look more foolish ?

What difference does it make ? You would claim the art of the mammoth was only 6k years old.

Man has not been around for 30,000 years. Otherwise somewhere he would have drawn the wooly mammoth somewhere. That's just one example

They get this all wrong. Obviously these "experts" are just regurgitating what academically biased professors teach, who themselves are regurgitating the same biased teachings before.

The real invention here people are referring to is called the "disc".

Discs have all sorts of purposes and could have easily been invented, lost, invented, lost, and invented again until it stuck.

Look, there is cave art that is supposedly 30-40K years old and by then, there was already sophisticated notions of design and abstraction. The art world plays it down, even in Chauvet Cave. They don't want to admit that the art is more sophisticated than what a a majority of people today can create. Most abstract expressionist painters can't hold a candle to art there.

So let me assure you, just because the oldest "wheel" is a few thousand years old, don't let that mean you have to assume those are around when they were invented. No, that time was when the invention finally "stuck".

So what would "discs" be used for? The answer is, RECORDING. And what do you think these artists from 30000 years ago were using to practice their art? Well, discs of course. Why would that be versus other things? Well, why do we use discs for data storage? Because they are efficient. You can carry many at once, and produce many at once.

Let's be realistic here, we modern humans as a whole are not that exceptional. Early humans were not simpletons, they just didn't have the numbers to ensure whatever little tride or village would have a legacy that could live on. What do you all think humans were doing for 10's of thousands of years before the dawn as mass civilization? Our roughly 6000 years of known history is only 1/5 of the time that has passed since Chauvet Cave and you want to tell me people where just sitting around like a bunch of unkempt, grunting imbeciles all that time until 6K years ago?

Hogwash.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Mesopotamian civilization is credited with the invention of the wheel by several, mainly old sources.

The wheel was invented in the 4th millennium BC in Lower Mesopotamia (modern-​​day Iraq), where the Sumerian people inserted rotating axles into solid discs of wood. It was only in 2000 BC that the discs began to be hollowed out to make a lighter wheel. This innovation led to major advances in two main areas.

The wheel is often considered one of the greatest inventions in human history for several reasons. Firstly, it revolutionized transportation, enabling faster and more efficient movement of people and goods over long distances. Secondly, it facilitated the development of complex societies by enhancing trade and communication networks. Lastly, its adaptability across various applications, from pottery-making to industrial machinery, demonstrates its enduring significance in shaping technological progress and human civilization. Thus, the wheel's impact on human development and advancement remains unparalleled

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Wu

Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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