Invention of Wheel - Sumer

The revolutionary invention of the wheel


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.

One may be tempted to think that the wheel 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 known wheel found in an archaeological excavation is from Mesopotamia, and dates to around 3500 BC. This period was known as the Bronze Age, which is a relatively late chapter in the story of the development of human civilisation. By this time, human beings were already planting crops, herding domesticated animals, and had some form of social hierarchy.

A Mesopotamian wheel

A Mesopotamian wheel. Photo source .

One of the reasons why the wheel was invented only at this point in history is due to the fact that metal tools 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 centre 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. 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 for pottery making may date even further back into the Neolithic). It seems that the use of wheels for transportation only happened 300 years later.

Pottery Wheels

The earliest wheels are believed to have been used for pottery making. Photo source .

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 the Eurasian steppes. Although Mesopotamia has the oldest known wheel, linguistic evidence is used to support the claim that the wheel originated in the Eurasian steppes.

Although the wheel has revolutionised the way early human beings travelled and transported goods from one place to another, the wheel 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 2 nd and 6 th centuries A.D., 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.

Featured image : A depiction of an onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian "battle standard of Ur"  . Photo source: Wikipedia.

By Ḏḥwty


Bellis, M., 2014. The Invention of the Wheel. [Online]
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Wolchover, N., 2012. Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. [Online]
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Without draft animals wheels, for transport are pretty useless. First you really can't stop on a hill without a sophisticated breaking mechanism. Secondly, if you look at the places that could have made the wheel, but didn't the ground is usually horrible for wheeled transport. Older wheeled transport was quite heavy for the volume they they could carry. Sand or Muddy conditions were out. Wheels are a fixed width apart on the axle which means no getting them through dense forest without a lot of work. Third as mentioned before even if you have domestic animals not all of them are suited to wheeled conveyance. The Andean llamas can pull a cart, but you have to go back the hill factor they are not sturdy enough beasts to break a heavily laden cart. They also don't like ramps as opposed to steps in their natural state. The dogs that were used in North America with travois might have have been able to adapt to carts if they had nice flat roads, something they might have had in a few centuries had there been no European contact. However, they did just fine with travois. By all accounts their 50-60 pound dogs could carry a quartered bison without slowing down the hunters and they could do it over all sorts of terrain from sand and grass to forest and snow.

Wheels were not preferred by Arab Muslims because of the desert. Wheels are not suitable for such terrain as they will sink in the sand. This has nothing to do with religion. It's just more practical to use camels than wagons and horses.

A better question than one simply about the invention of the wheel is why knowledge of this device was ignored by relatively advanced people. Arab Muslims virtually traded the wheel for the camel, the wheel no doubt being contrary to the wishes of Mohammed and allah. But the Mayas in central america knew the wheel. They used it only in children/s toys. A number of examples have been found in tombs of wood carved dogs having four wheels supported by an axles running through holes drilled in the front and rear legs. The toy was pulled by a string. No full sized ancient Mayan wheels have ever been found.

Peter Harrap's picture

I am definitely with Angie here on this one. I believe there have been wheels for almost as long as we have been around because you cannot observe an apple or orange or cherry rolling on the ground without being struck by its way of moving, and once you look again and again at it, the next thing is to slice through your apple, or cut it into slices and see if they roll. There are dozens of fruits in nature that move like this an they probably predate us, so the catalyst and the inspiration have always been all around us.

angieblackmon's picture

it's funny that this article comes out now when I was just talking to my husband the other day about the wheel and why it wasn't created sooner. I couldn't figure out why someone would understand the idea of rolling. Even small kids (like our 8 month old daughter) understand how to roll over...and it seems to me that trees that could/would have fallen down could have been rolled out of the way...the same thing with like fruit or anything else circular or similar....glad to read this! :)

love, light and blessings



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