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The earliest wheels may have been created 8,000 years ago, but the origins of the wheel are uncertain. What we do know is that wheels were used as parts of vehicles in Mesopotamia by 5,200 years ago. There are carvings in limestone and clay panels dating from that time depicting wheeled carts and wagons being pulled by animals. Actual wheels about 4,500 years old have been found in excavations at Ur. But, whether people in Uruk, Ur, or some other early urbanized setting first invented wheeled carts and animal traction, or whether they were merely the first to illustrate this invention, isn't entirely clear. It seems likely that the technology of making a wagon and using wheels for transportation may originally come from Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, or eastern Europe, but then rapidly spread.

There is evidence that the wheel technology and associated cultural transformation spread rapidly to Egypt, Europe, and Asia. Archeological evidence suggests that the spread of wheels parrellels a shift to an emphasis on the domestication of cattle (prior to the wheel, pigs and sheep were evidently the more significant domesticated animals). The use of written languages, an increase in urban settlements, growth in the sizes of towns, and perhaps a greater accumulation of property and power by elites also seem to be patterns of social change that may be related to the invention and spread of the use of the wheel.

The early wheels of 5,000 years ago were solid. It was a little over a thousand years later, perhaps around 4,800 years ago, that innovations in wheel technology and horse domestication rapidly spread all over Eurasia. Speakers of Proto-Indo-European may have invented the spoked wheel, and also been the first to use horses to pull carts or chariots with spoked-wheels. David W. Anthony emphasizes the importance of these inventions and their diffusion, and uses linguistic analysis to explore ancient cross-cultural contacts. Incidently, Anthony reports that the Proto-Indo-European word for wheel may have sounded like "roteh," and the word for axle might have sounded like "aks," words that remind English-speakers of words such as rotate.

Archaeologists have found spinning wheels dating back before those used for pottery and transport, perhaps dating to periods as far back as 7,000 years ago. The Hemudu historical site in Yuyao county Zhejiang province of China, for example, has primitive spinning wheel artifacts. The Hemudu peoples, who lived south of the Yangtse River, were probably eventually assimilated into the Chinese, but they were culturally quite different from the Neolithic Yangshao peoples who lived near the Yellow River. It was the Yangshao who were more direct ancestors of modern Han Chinese, at least in terms of culture, if not genetics. It seems that the Yangshao did not use pottery wheels. However, the later Lung-shan culture did make use of pottery wheels in the late neolithic, perhaps around 5,500 years ago. So, some peoples of what is today China were using pottery wheels and stone-polishing wheels (for jade working) before the arrival of transportation wheel technology.

Pottery wheels may be older than wheels used for transportation, but this is not certain. There is only good evidence for the use of slow pottery wheels dating back to about 5,200 years ago, and this comes from the same time and place as those first images of animals pulling wheeled carts, Mesopotamia. The use of the fast pottery wheel became widespread about 1,000 years later, a little over 4,000 years ago.

Back when the wheel was a new invention, powerful elites across Eurasia seem to have frequently been buried with wheeled carts or chariots. Even much later, Chinese tomb sites of the Shang dynasty and Western Zhou contain chariots. Late in the Shang Dynasty, about 3,200 years ago), spoke-wheeled chariots were wide-spread, although it is unlikely that the spoke-wheel chariot was actually invented within the borders of the Shang Dynasty's empire.

The wheelbarrow (single wheel handcart) single wheel. The simple structure of the wheelbarrow has two handles to support the vehicle for lifting or pushing, which is very suitable for carrying goods in the fields or on mountain trails. Sometimes using the power of animals such as a donkey or horse pulling in front of the wheelbarrow can save lots of strength. A picture of A wheelbarrow was found on a tomb wall from the Han Dynasty in Chengdu of Sichuan province, China. The tomb dates to around 2,100 years ago. Wheelbarrow “独轮车” is given the name by Shen Kua (沈括) in his book Dream Pool Essays《梦溪笔谈》written by him during the Northern Song Dynasty, around 1000 A.D. The wheelbarrow was not widely used in Europe until around 1200 A.D., althoguh M.J.T. Lewis has pointed out that a "one wheeled cart" that must have been some sort of wheelbarrow was listed on a Greek temple inventory about 2,400 years ago.


Links about Wheels:
  1. Book: Ten Thousand Years of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper
  2. Explore the ArchAtlas project.
  3. Book: David D. Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language.
  4. A review of David D. Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language.
  5. Book: Technology in the Ancient World by Henry Hodges.
  6. Abstract: The Origins of the Wheelbarrow (MJT Lewis)
Back to the English Language Timeline (wheel) (wheelbarrow)
Back to the Historylines home page.

Articles of French history:Eiffel tower, Louvre, Versailles, Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris Opera house.

Articles of Chinese history:oil well, abacus, compass, gunpowder, first dictionary, paper money, wheelbarrow.

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