The Invention of the Wheel and Wheeled Vehicles

The Impact of Wheeled Vehicles on Human History

Persian lion mounted on a wheeled carriage.
Lion mounted on a wheeled carriage made of calcite and bitumen, from Susa. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

The inventions of the wheel and wheeled vehicles–wagons or carts which are supported and moved around by round wheels–had a profound effect on human economy and society. As a way to efficiently carry goods for long distances, wheeled vehicles allowed for the broadening of trade networks. With access to a wider market, craftspeople could more easily specialize, and communities could expand if there was no need to live close to food production areas. In a very real sense, wheeled vehicles facilitated periodic farmers markets. Not all changes brought by wheeled vehicles were good ones, however: With the wheel, imperialist elites were able to expand their range of control, and wars could be waged farther afield.

Key Takeaways: Invention of the Wheel

  • The earliest evidence for wheel use is that of drawings on clay tablets, found nearly simultaneously throughout the Mediterranean region about 3500 BCE. 
  • Parallel innovations dated about the same time as the wheeled vehicle are the domestication of the horse and prepared trackways. 
  • Wheeled vehicles are helpful, but not necessary, for the introduction of extensive trade networks and markets, craft specialists, imperialism, and the growth of settlements in different complex societies. 

Parallel Innovations

It wasn't simply the invention of wheels alone that created these changes. Wheels are most useful in combination with suitable draft animals such as horses and oxen, as well as prepared roadways. The earliest planked roadway we know of, Plumstead in the United Kingdom, dates to about the same time as the wheel, 5,700 years ago. Cattle were domesticated about 10,000 years ago and horses probably about 5,500 years ago.

Wheeled vehicles were in use across Europe by the third millennium BCE, as evidenced by the discovery of clay models of high sided four-wheeled carts throughout the Danube and Hungarian plains, such as that from the site of Szigetszentmarton in Hungary. More than 20 wooden wheels dated to the late and final Neolithic have been discovered in different wetland contexts across central Europe, between about 3300–2800 BCE.

Wheels were invented in the Americas, too, but because draft animals were not available, wheeled vehicles were not an American innovation. Trade flourished in the Americas, as did craft specialization, imperialism and wars, road construction, and the expansion of settlements, all without wheeled vehicles: but there's no doubt that having the wheel did drive (pardon the pun) many social and economic changes in Europe and Asia.

Earliest Evidence

The earliest evidence for wheeled vehicles appears simultaneously in Southwest Asia and Northern Europe, about 3500 BCE. In Mesopotamia, that evidence is from images, pictographs representing four-wheeled wagons found inscribed on clay tablets dated to the late Uruk period of Mesopotamia. Models of solid wheels, carved from limestone or modeled in clay, have been found in Syria and Turkey, at sites dated approximately a century or two later. Although long-standing tradition credits the southern Mesopotamian civilization with the invention of wheeled vehicles, today scholars are less certain, as there appears to be a nearly simultaneous record of use throughout the Mediterranean basin. Scholars are divided as to whether this is the result of the rapid dissemination of a single invention or multiple independent innovations.

In technological terms, the earliest wheeled vehicles appear to have been four-wheeled, as determined from models identified at Uruk (Iraq) and Bronocice (Poland). A two-wheeled cart is illustrated at the end of the fourth millennium BCE, at Lohne-Engelshecke, Germany (~3402–2800 cal BCE (calendar years BCE). The earliest wheels were single piece discs, with a cross-section roughly approximating the spindle whorl—that is, thicker in the middle and thinning to the edges. In Switzerland and southwestern Germany, the earliest wheels were fixed to a rotating axle through a square mortise, so that the wheels turned together with the axle. Elsewhere in Europe and the Near East, the axle was fixed and straight, and the wheels turned independently. When wheels turn freely from the axle, a drayman can turn the cart without having to drag the outside wheel.

Wheel Ruts and Pictographs

The oldest known evidence of wheeled vehicles in Europe comes from the Flintbek site, a Funnel Beaker culture near Kiel, Germany, dated to 3420–3385 cal BCE. A series of parallel cart tracks was identified beneath the northwestern half of the long barrow at Flintbek, measuring just over 65 ft (20 m) long and consisting of two parallel sets of wheel ruts, up to two ft (60 cm) wide. Each single wheel rut was 2–2.5 in (5–6 cm) wide, and the gauge of the wagons has been estimated at 3.5–4 ft (1.1–1.2 m) wide. On the islands of Malta and Gozo, a number of cart ruts have been found which may or may not be associated with the construction of the Neolithic temples there.

At Bronocice in Poland, a Funnel Beaker site located 28 mi (45 km) northeast of Kraków, a ceramic vessel (a beaker) was painted with several, repeated images of a schematic of a four-wheel wagon and yoke, as part of the design. The beaker is associated with cattle bone dated to 3631–3380 cal BCE. Other pictographs are known from Switzerland, Germany, and Italy; two wagon pictographs are also known from the Eanna precinct, level 4A at Uruk, dated to 2815+/-85 BCE (4765+/-85 BP [5520 cal BP]), a third is from Tell Uqair: both these sites are in what is today Iraq. Reliable dates indicate that two- and four-wheeled vehicles were known from the mid-fourth millennium BCE throughout most of Europe. Single wheels made of wood have been identified from Denmark and Slovenia.

Models of Wheeled Wagons

While miniature models of wagons are useful to the archaeologist, because they are explicit, information-bearing artifacts, they must also have had some specific meaning and significance in the various regions where they were used. Models are known from Mesopotamia, Greece, Italy, the Carpathian basin, the Pontic region in Greece, India, and China. Complete life-sized vehicles are also known from Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, occasionally used as funeral objects.

A wheel model carved out of chalk was recovered from the late Uruk site of Jebel Aruda in Syria. This asymmetrical disk measures 3 in (8 cm) in diameter and 1 in (3 cm) thick, and wheel as hubs on both sides. A second wheel model was discovered at the Arslantepe site in Turkey. This disc made of clay measured 3 in (7.5 cm) in diameter and has a central hole where presumably the axle would have gone. This site also includes local wheel-thrown imitations of the simplified form of late Uruk pottery.

One recently reported miniature model comes from the site of Nemesnádudvar, an early Bronze Age through Late Medieval site located near the town of Nemesnádudvar, County Bács-Kiskun, Hungary. The model was discovered along with various pottery fragments and animal bones in a part of the settlement dated to the early Bronze Age. The model is 10.4 in (26.3 cm) long, 5.8 in (14.9 cm) wide, and has a height of 2.5 in (8.8 cm). Wheels and axles for the model were not recovered, but the round feet were perforated as if they had existed at one time. The model is made out of clay tempered with crushed ceramics and fired to brownish gray color. The bed of the wagon is rectangular, with straight-sided short ends, and curved edges on the long side. The feet are cylindrical; the entire piece is decorated in zoned, parallel chevrons and oblique lines.

Ulan IV, Burial 15, Kurgan 4

In 2014, archaeologist Natalia Shishlina and colleagues reported the recovery of a dismantled four-wheeled full-sized wagon, direct-dated to between 2398–2141 cal BCE. This Early Bronze Age Steppe Society (specifically East Manych Catacomb culture) site in Russia contained the interment of an elderly man, whose grave goods also included a bronze knife and rod, and a turnip-shaped pot.

The rectangular wagon frame measured 5.4x2.3 ft (1.65x0.7 m) and the wheels, supported by horizontal axles, were 1.6 ft (.48 m) in diameter. Side panels were constructed of horizontally placed planks; and the interior was probably covered with reed, felt, or woolen mat. Curiously, the different parts of the wagon were made of a variety of wood, including elm, ash, maple, and oak.

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