Reddit AMA With Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

The Wheel brings a fresh perspective to an old and extremely important subject. Among other things Richard Bulliet shows how the invention of the wheel and its many applications to transportation occurred over thousands of years and was influenced by socio-cultural and psychological as well as economic and political factors. In doing so, his revisionist history recasts our understanding of an invention that literally changed the world.” — Merritt Roe Smith

We continue today our weekly feature of Richard W. Bulliet’s The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions with a Reddit AMA (“As Me Anything”) starring the author himself. In a real-time interaction between Professor Bulliet and the enthusiastic history community on Reddit, the author answers questions regarding his new book, his research, and of course the history of the wheel itself. Here’s a few excerpts from the thread:

One of the biggest things I always hear about the Aztecs and the Mayans are about how they did all their work and built their monuments ‘without ever having invented the wheel.’ It seems to me that this must be some sort of like the telephone game. Was it more that they had no need of it due to climate or was it a case where they simply didn’t think to use it for transportation?

Many people including Jared Diamond have argued that the lack of large domestic animals in the Western Hemisphere prevented wheeled vehicles from being invented. But humans can pull carts, and we have pictorial evidence for this in the Old World back to the third millennium BCE.

As for working on large monuments, wheels were never a crucial technology for this. The pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge were built without wheels. The earliest wagons were not strong enough to carry really heavy stones, nor was the harnessing technology up to the task.

It is commonly argued that wheels evolved from rollers used to move heavy stones. But we don’t have any evidence for this. Skids rather than rollers were used to distribute the stone’s weight over a wide surface. If rollers had become worn enough for their ends to function as wheels, the wheel-like ends would have had to bear all the weight. Thus the advantage of the roller would have been lost. Inclined planes, skids, and large team of human pullers were more useful for monumental building with big stones than either rollers or wheels.

In terms of how we do history on something so seemingly pre-historic, can you outline some of the methodology you use to make assumptions about the earliest “appearances” of the wheel, and the delicate balance between empirical discovery and imaginative speculation/extrapolation?

For many historical questions, material evidence is better than textual evidence; but it is best when you have both. Nevertheless, the earliest wheel evidence is necessarily pre-textual because we have no writing that goes back far enough.

Evidence for the earliest use of the wheel consists of images on ancient artifacts, the artifacts themselves, particularly if their age and origin can be determined with some precision, and archaeological reconstructions of the relevant societies to determine what they might have used wheels for.

Conjecture comes in when you get all your ducks in a row, in terms of images, dates, and artifacts, and then try to make sense of them. The problem with the wheel is that homo sapiens sapiens carried their stuff around without using wheels for over 90,000 years, and then shifted them onto the backs of domestic animals. This means that they knew exactly how to divide their normal loads up so they could be carried. My conjecture here is that the wheel was invented when a new and challenging type of load was confronted. Many people think that challenge came from moving stones for pyramids, but the Egyptians and other pyramid builders didn’t use wheels.

My thought is that copper mining presented the challenge of moving large amounts of very heavy ore through a narrow mine corridor and out to the smelter. In many, perhaps most, early copper mines, the miners slid baskets and trays along the floor. But in the Carpathian Mountains someone thought of putting a basket on wheels.

The physical evidence for this consists of over 100 clay models of smallish four-wheeled cars, some of them clearly designed as drinking mugs. Carbon-14 dating of associated materials makes them the earliest depictions of wheeled vehicles (as opposed to wheeled toys). I believe that these models played an iconic role in rituals of some sort that celebrated the contribution of mining to the local society. That is a conjecture.

Conjectures work best when they line up with other factors and evidence. In this case, the fact that mine cars in Europe, and then America, remained fairly small and hand-pushed down to 1900 is one such factor. Another is the fact that these mine cars continued to use wheels that were fixed to the ends of their axles and thus could not be steered since the wheel-axle-wheel combination turned as a unit.

What is your favorite movie to feature the wheel?

I enjoy the fanciful vehicle designs of Gladiator, Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Fury Road, and some of the Batman movies. But vehicle depictions in movies claiming to show what things were like before, say, 1400 are usually irritatingly inaccurate; and Roman era pics almost always use horse harnessing of post-Roman vintage. I’m also annoying to be with in movies that show camel saddles. They show the Moroccan saddles proper to where they were shot no matter where the movie is set. Example, The Man Who Would Be King.

I would love to see a movie recreating a Mongol encampment on the move, with hundreds, if not thousands of carts and wagon-mounted homes wrangled by Mongol women.

Or if Steve Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen ever gets made into a movie, the giant wagon being pulled by the undead prisoners of the sword Dragnipur would be wonderful to design.

That’s it for today! In the meantime, be sure to check out the rest of Professor Bulliet’s AMA here. Throughout the week, we will continue to feature content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

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