When Wheels Entered History

Wheels in Human History

Wheels enter history quite gradually.  The concept is perhaps not so hard: people living in what is now Mexico had small wheeled objects, mostly seen as toys but perhaps with a religious function.[A]  But useful wagons are another matter.  Sledges were preferred for some time, even where there was no snow.

“Wheels are the archetype of a primitive, caveman-level technology. But in fact, they’re so ingenious that it took until 3500 B.C. for someone to invent them. By that time — it was the Bronze Age — humans were already casting metal alloys, constructing canals and sailboats, and even designing complex musical instruments such as harps.

“The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.

“‘The stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept,’ said David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College and author of ‘The Horse, the Wheel, and Language’… ‘But then making it was also difficult’…

“The success of the whole structure was extremely sensitive to the size of the axle. A thick axle would generate too much friction, while narrow one would reduce friction but would also be too weak to support a load. ‘They solved this problem by making the earliest wagons quite narrow, so they could have short axles, which made it possible to have an axle that wasn’t very thick,’ Anthony told Life’s Little Mysteries.

“The sensitivity of the wheel-and-axle system to all these factors meant that it could not have been developed in phases, he said. It was an all-or-nothing structure.

“Whoever invented it must have had access to wide slabs of wood from thick-trunked trees in order to carve large, round wheels. They also needed metal tools to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. And they must have had a need for hauling heavy burdens over land. According to Anthony, ‘It was the carpentry that probably delayed the invention until 3500 B.C. or so, because it was only after about 4000 B.C. that cast copper chisels and gouges became common in the Near East.’

“The invention of the wheel was so challenging that it probably happened only once, in one place. However, from that place, it seems to have spread so rapidly across Eurasia and the Middle East that experts cannot say for sure where it originated.  The earliest images of wheeled carts have been excavated in Poland and elsewhere in the Eurasian steppes, and this region is overtaking Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) as the wheel’s most likely birthplace. According to Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, there are linguistic reasons to believe the wheel originated with the Tripolye people of modern-day Ukraine. That is, the words associated with wheels and wagons derive from the language of that culture.”[B]

To me, it is remarkable that wheels for wagons appear simultaneously with the potters’ wheel.[C]  My parents took an interest in arts and crafts, so as a child I saw actual traditional potters in action.  A lump of wet clay placed at the centre of a heavy horizonal wheel will rise and be easily formed into a pot-shape with gentle finger pressure.[D]  It looks magical.  And a lot less work than shaping a pot by hand, as people had been doing for millennia.  The result is much more symmetrical, and fancy markings are possible.

This useful device could have emerged accidentally from simple turntables that made it easier to make pots by traditional methods:

“Much early ceramic ware was hand-built using a simple coiling technique in which clay was rolled into long threads that were then pinched and beaten together to form the body of a vessel. In the coiling method of construction, all the energy required to form the main part of a piece is supplied indirectly by the hands of the potter. Early ceramics built by coiling were often placed on mats or large leaves to allow them to be worked more conveniently. The evidence of this lies in mat or leaf impressions left in the clay of the base of the pot. This arrangement allowed the potter to rotate the vessel during construction, rather than walk around it to add coils of clay.

“The earliest forms of the potters’ wheel (called tourneys or slow wheels) were probably developed as an extension to this procedure. Tournettes, in use around 4500 BC in the Near East, were turned slowly by hand or by foot while coiling a pot. Only a small range of vessels were fashioned on the tournette, suggesting that it was used by a limited number of potters. The introduction of the slow wheel increased the efficiency of hand-powered pottery production.

“In the mid to late 3rd millennium BCE the fast wheel was developed, which operated on the flywheel principle. It utilised energy stored in the rotating mass of the heavy stone wheel itself to speed the process. This wheel was wound up and charged with energy by kicking, or pushing it around with a stick, providing a centrifugal force. The fast wheel enabled a new process of pottery-making to develop, called throwing, in which a lump of clay was placed centrally on the wheel and then squeezed, lifted and shaped as the wheel turned.”[E]

You can imagine how it might have happened.  As wonderful new copper tools become available, people use them to produce tourneys (slow wheels) that turn smoothly and with little effort.  On day, a child or perhaps a teenager messes around with one of them and makes it spin fast.  They then drop on a lump of wet clay and discover that the wheel does something magical and useful.  They show off this brilliant new invention, and it spreads rapidly.

(Someone with funding should make a documentary called The Roll of Pots in Building Human Civilisation.  Get craftspeople to try re-creating the possible discovery of smelting in pot kilns, and the evolution of the potters’ wheel.)

Wheels fitting smoothly to axels for the new potters’ wheels make it a small step to think of making wheeled carts as well.  Maybe the first examples are toy-sized, but probably displayed as magical things for adults rather than for children.  The larger they get, the trickier it is to make a wooden wheel-system that will run smoothly with large loads.  But even a small wagon has some uses, so there was a smooth path upwards.  And as I said, people went on using sledges for some time, while wagons gradually improved.

Here you have a ‘chariot of the gods’ without the need for gods: just playful humans who spot a new opportunity.  And surprisingly, the wheel had been around, and horses had been tamed to pull wagons, for about two thousand years before actual chariots appear.  They may have been invented by a people known to us as Aryans or proto-Indo-Europeans.  These certainly became the most efficient and successful users.  No better than the professional armies of Mesopotamia, who soon learned the art even if they were not the original inventors.  But much more formidable pushing westward into Anatolia and Europe and eastward through Iran down to the Indian Subcontinent.

Majority opinion puts the origin of this people at about 4000 BC, and they only became formidable with the development of chariots from about 2000 BC.  An alternative minority view is that they existed long before that in Anatolia and were the first farmers there.  But with certainty, no one wrote a language recognisable as Indo-European until long after writing had been invented by the Sumerians.  It was absent when the Sumerian system was adapted by various speakers of ancient extinct Semitic languages, and other lost languages that mostly have no known relatives.

19th century European racists liked to associate the rise of industrialisation in Western Europe with the much older venture of the Indo-Europeans.  But those original tribalists were almost certainly not the main ancestors of West Europeans.  Such notions were nonsense, useful to justify Empires in which one racial group dominated many others.

“There actually were Aryans in history … but they were Bronze Age tribal people who lived in Iran, Afghanistan, and the northern Indian subcontinent.  It is highly doubtful that they were blond or blue-eyed…

“And how did the Aryans themselves define ‘Aryan’?  According to their own texts, they conceived of ‘Aryan-ness’ as a religious-linguistic category.  Some Sanskrit-speaking chiefs, and even poets in the Rig-Veda [the oldest and most sacred Hindu scripture], had names such as Balbutha and Brbu that were foreign to the Sanskrit ones.  These people were of non-Aryan origin and yet were leaders among the Aryans…  The Rig-Veda made the ritual and linguistic barrier clear, but it did not require or even contemplate racial purity.”[F]

Of course, names do not reliably indicate racial origin.  Consider Martin Luther King, Leon Trotsky, Nelson Mandela etc.  Or all the West Europeans with first names of remote Hebrew origin.  But I’m sure he is right that definitions were cultural.  A concept as broad as the ‘White Race’ only really emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In what’s otherwise a clever work, Gore Vidal in a novel called Creation has a dark-skinned Indra and has the narrator suppose that this is from ‘going native’ while in India.  In fact, traditions vary a lot – but the even more significant Krishna has a name meaning ‘black’, ‘dark’, or ‘dark blue’.[G]

We can safely assume that blue-skinned people never existed outside of Hindu religious art.  Indo-Europeans were a culture that began in a region where the people probably looked much like modern South Russians.  But all sorts of people would have later picked up the culture, just as a majority of modern English-speakers look nothing like most people who identify themselves as English.

The term ‘Aryan’ was unknown outside of speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, though it is thought to be related to ‘artistic’ and also ‘aristocratic’.  Genetic evidence suggests that the first Indo-Europeans came from what is now South Russia.  And that their spread was more cultural than genetic, with older populations assimilated to the new culture.  Thinking of it as an ancient Great Race is discredited mainstream scholarship.  Stuff now upheld as true only by the Far Right, who are slow learners.

(They also suppose that they are Caucasians, even though only those living in or near the Caucasus Mountains would have had ancestors who ever lived there. DNA shows very different paths of human migration.)

India was the far south-eastern end of the Indo-European expansion.  It included many other elements:

“The language of the Rig-Veda contained many traces of its syncretic origins.  The deity name Indra and the drug-deity name Soma, the two central elements of the religion of the Rig-Veda, were non-Indo-Iranian words borrowed in the contact zone…  Indra was regarded in later Avestan Iranian texts as a minor demon”[H]

For later Hindus, Devas were gods and Asuras were demons.  For Iranian religion as reformed by Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda was the supreme good god and Daeva are demons.  In some long-forgotten dispute between rival priests, older deities were either assimilated or turned into evil enemies.

Meantime in Europe, the quintessentially Greek God Apollo probably came from Anatolia. The oldest Greeks had a god called Paean, assimilated by Apollo.  He may have begun as a Hittite god of plagues.[I]  That’s how impure and complex the ‘classical’ legacies actually are.

“Now it is a remarkable fact that in Homer Apollo is not the god of the Greeks, but the chief deity of the Trojans with his temple in their citadel”[J]

“The cult of Apollo is thought not to be Greek but Anatolian or Cypriot in origin (Homer calls him ‘Lycian-born’).  Interestingly enough his name does not appear in the Linear B tablets so far unearthed.”[K]

Much of Europe’s culture came from West Asia, including deities like Cybele and Mithras.  And of course Jesus, and his mother Mary.  Mary (originally Mariam) is barely mentioned in the Gospels, but took over the ancient Mother-Goddess role.

Transfers between peoples living in Anatolia and Greece would have been easy, because there was a common culture behind all of the branches:

“Scholars noticed more than a hundred years ago that the oldest well-documented Indo-European languages – Imperial Hittite, Mycenaean Greek, and the most ancient form of Sanskrit … were spoken by militaristic societies that seemed to erupt into the ancient world driving chariots pulled by swift horses…  For about a thousand years, between 1700 and 700 BCD, chariots were the favoured weapons of pharaohs and kings throughout the ancient world…  After 800 BCE chariots were gradually abandoned as they became vulnerable to a new kind of warfare conducted by disciplined troops of mounted archers.”[L]

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language suggests that the early Indo-European invented the chariot, perhaps originally developed for racing at funeral games.  For certain, they were the main chariot-users who were also nomadic tribalists.  Existing states used chariots, but this gave them no clear advantage.  The technology proved easy to copy by states that already had professional armies.  But a warrior class among nomadic tribalist could push into the territory of other people who lacked chariots.  These would either be conquered and assimilate, or else fight back and copy a lot of the enemy’s methods.

What was so great about the chariot?  First, it was fast, whereas a conventional wagon would have been too slow to be decisive in battle.  This speed was helped by having spoked wheels rather than the older solid-wood wheels.  But a warrior standing on a mobile platform was also deadlier than a warrior on horseback:

“From a standing position in a chariot, a driver-warrior could use his entire body to throw, whereas a man on horseback without stirrups (invented after 300 CE) could use only his arm and shoulder.  A javelin-hurling charioteer could strike a man on horseback before the rider could strike him.  Unlike a charioteer, a man on horseback could not carry a large sheath full of javelins and so would be at a double disadvantage if his first cast missed.”[M]

And could attack several foes in turn.  Charioteers more often fired arrows, and could use long powerful bows, very tricky for a horseman.  The decline of chariots began when people learned how to make short enormously powerful bows carefully constructed from wood, horn, sinew etc. The bows used in mediaeval times by the Mongols had a longer range than the famous ‘English’ longbows (which were anyway a Welsh invention).

The singular Indo-European class structure must have proved efficient for conquering societies without a professional army.  The basic order was of priest / scholars, warriors, merchants, and commoners.  Best known from Hindu society, where it hardened into caste lines and then elaborated into the modern system, which is much more complex.  But it is found elsewhere among societies with Indo-European languages.  Perhaps it had existed for a long time among the original Indo-Europeans, and suddenly blossomed with the invention of the chariot.

A chariot is a luxury for anything except war and chariot-races.  It is also tricky to learn.  And a war-chariot becomes much more effective when the driver is skilled and experienced.

One way to have large numbers of skilled charioteers is a professional army funded by taxes.

The other is a class of warriors fed by the commoners, either as a tribal elite or as owners of herds or land.  These have a vast advantage over non-militarised tribalists.  Warriors will travel vast distances to find a good war, sometimes following existing social ties but often without.  Non-militarised tribalist would be much less likely to do this.  Warriors might originally have been brought in as allies for some local quarrel between tribes with the older pattern.

I see an analogy with the way that West European Imperialism imposed its cultural pattern on the rest of the world.  Sometimes the original peoples were reduced to a tiny minority, as in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Sometimes the newcomers became a dominant elite, as in Latin America.  Or the original inhabitants produced their own elites who took over, as in Africa and much of Asia.  Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, Communist Vietnam, and Communist China become formidable enemies of European Imperialism, while also assimilating many of its values.

Whether the language gets replaced depends on whether there was an existing language strong enough to become the main medium for the new thinking, or else  the language of state power.  Conqueror languages dominate in Latin America and most of Black Africa.  Asia kept its traditions, but the Republic of India has both English and Hindi as official languages.  Singapore has English as one of four.  Vast numbers of Chinese, Japanese and other Asians learn English as the language they need for the wider world.

Stepping back to the original expansionist Indo-Europeans, it seems likely that Europe and what became Iran were a diversity of languages and language-families, all too small to resist.  In all Europe, only Basque may be a survival of what the older inhabitants spoke.  Also perhaps not: we know that the Celtic languages of Britain were brought by conquerors and are extinct in their original central-European heartland.

As for the Indian subcontinent, the Dravidian languages of South India may be the survival of the language of the Indus Valley Civilisation.  Or they may be a wholly separate South Indian development: another language of conquest.   Occurrences in the north are generally believed to be later migrations.

Indo-European spread by successful conquest and assimilation, like almost all other major languages.  But perhaps Indo-European languages forced a more analytical mode of thinking:

“Many other language families became extinct as Indo-European languages spread.  It is possible that the resultant loss of linguistic diversity has narrowed and channelled habits of perception in the modern world.  For example, all Indo-European languages force the speaker to pay attention to tense and number when talking about an action: you must specify whether the action is past, present, or future, and you must specify whether the actor is singular or plural.”[N]

Hinduism successfully sterilised any progressive aspects the language may have had: it became bound up with a ritual and mystical culture.  By contrast, the culture of Imperial China was so close to modern thinking that it remains puzzling it got no further.  But Chinese does not force you to ‘pay attention to tense and number’, though it does of course allow it.  One of several possible explanations for why China did not invent modern society.[O]

The process continued throughout history:

“The pre-Indo-European languages of Europe were abandoned because they were linked to membership of social groups that became stigmatized… the possibilities are much more varied than just invasion and conquest…  The Gaelic spoken by Scottish ‘fisher’ folk was abandoned after World War II, when increased mobility and new economic opportunities led to out-marriage between Gaelic ‘fishers’ and the surrounding English-speaking population, and the formerly tightly closed and egalitarian ‘fisher’ community became intensely aware both of its low ranking in the larger world and of alternative economic opportunities.  Gaelic rapidly disappeared, although only a few people – soldiers, professionals, teachers – moved very far.”[P]

Indo-Europeans were tribalists, as likely to fight each other as people with other languages or cultures.  The language split into many different branches:

“The oldest written Indo-European languages belong to the Anatolian branch… three early stems, Hittite, Luwian, and Palaic.  All three languages are extinct, but once were spoken over large parts of ancient Anatolia… Hittite is by far the best known of the three, as it was the palace and administrative language of the Hittite Empire…

“The name Hittite was given to them by Egyptian and Syrian scribes who failed to distinguish the Hittite kings from the Hattic kings they had conquered…  Hattic was a non-Indo-European language, probably linked distantly to the Caucasian languages.  The Hittites borrowed Hattic words for throne, lord, king, queen, queen mother, heir apparent, priest, and a long list of palace officials and cult leaders…  The early speakers of Hittite or Palaic were intruders in a non-Indo-European central Anatolian landscape dominated by Hattic speakers who had already founded cities, acquired literate bureaucracies, and established kingdoms and palace cults…

“The Hittites looted Babylon, took other cities from the Assyrians, and fought the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II to a standstill at the greatest chariot battle of ancient times, at Kadesh, on the banks of the Orontes River in Syria.”[Q]

The Hittites replaced the Hattics in 1650 BC.  They fell in the Late Bronze Age Crisis, having their capital burned in 1180 BC.  They were also tied somehow to the Trojans who were the historic basis of Homer’s Iliad:

“The third early Anatolian language, Luwian, was spoken by more people over a larger area, and it continued to be spoken after the end of the [Hittite] empire.  During the later Hittite empire Luwian was the dominant language even in the Hittite royal court.  Luwian did not borrow from Hattic core region and so might have been spoken originally in western Anatolia outside the Hattic core region – perhaps even in Troy, where a Luwian inscription was found on a seal in Troy level VI – the Troy of the Trojan War.  On the other hand Luwian did borrow from other, unknown, non-Indo-European language(s).”[R]

Meantime another branch of the expanding Indo-Europeans created Mycenaean Greece.  They too took over from older city-dwellers.  Athens and many other famous cities have names believed to be pre-Greek.

There was also another unrelated Indo-European intrusion: the Mitanni Empire had royal names and names for gods clearly related to those of the Indo-Iranians.  Yet this must have been a small military elite, since the language was Hurrian, from yet another language family.[S]  The politics of the era were very complex, and we have only stray records.

What we do know suggests a diversity of small Indo-European expansions with no overall plan.  Where a city-based literate state existed, they might take it over.  Where society was tribal, as it was in most of Europe, they remained tribalists with a gift for warfare in the Eneolithic, the Copper-Age transition between the Neolithic and the later Bronze Age:

“Eneolithic warfare was tribal warfare, so there were no armies, just the young men of this clan fighting the young men of that clan.  And early Indo-European warfare seems from the earliest myths and poetic traditions to have been conducted principally to gain glory…  Eneolithic warfare probably was a strictly seasonal activity conducted by groups organised more like modern neighbourhood gangs than modern armies.”[T]

When Homer told of the Trojan War, he understood it in just that spirit.  But this may have been him falsely understanding a well-ordered Mycenaean society in terms of the much more disorderly society of his own time.  He might well have merged many different events, some of them from a wider war by the High King of the Mycenaean Greeks against the outskirts of the Hittite Empire.

This comes from a longer study; How Humans Became Citizens. The next section discusses the Trojan War in detail: it is also a separate web-page, The Truth of Troy.

[A] https://uncoveredhistory.com/mesoamerica/wheeled-toys/

[B] https://www.livescience.com/18808-invention-wheel.html

[C] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel#History

[D]  See for instance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qu6UHBc72pc – one of many demonstrations.

[E] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potter%27s_wheel#History

[F] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World.  David W. Anthony, Princeton, 2007.  Pages 10-11.

[G] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna#Names_and_epithets

[H] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 454.

[I] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo#Etymology

[J] Wood, Michael.  In Search of the Trojan War, BBC Books 2005. First published 1985.  Page 299

[K] In Search of the Trojan War, page 300

[L] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 18.

[M] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 400.

[N] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 19

[O] https://gwydionwilliams.com/99-problems-magazine/traditional-china-resisted-modernisation/

[P] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 340

[Q] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, pages 44-5.

[R] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 45

[S] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 49

[T] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, page 237