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Why did the peoples of the New World fail to invent the wheel? (straightdope.com)
47 points by soundsop on May 17, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

The general sequence of friction-reducing inventions is thought to have been runners, rollers, rollers held in place by guides, rollers held in place by guides and thickened on the ends to make them roll straighter, the wheel and axle

How to grow a wheel - it's not how smart you are, it's how often you iterate.

I wonder if anyone ever said "There's no reason to reinvent the roller".

And the context you choose to iterate in. (Academia, startup, big business, garage, etc.) For rapid growth & discovery, find/build an environment that lets you iterate a lot.

Advantage we have over Incas is we (people educated & wealthy enough to be reading HN) get to choose our contexts, to a significant extent --> lots of wheels get invented.

Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" argued rather persuasively that the New World did not develop the (larger than toy-sized) wheel because humans had killed off all the large animals capable of being domesticated enough to be harnessed to said wheels other than fellow humans.


From the wiki: "Eurasia as a whole domesticated 13 species of large animals (over 100lb / 44 kg); South America just one (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species); the rest of the world none at all."

It would seem rather pointless to make a cart with wheels and all, just to pull it yourself. Your neighbors would laugh at your claims of "reducing labor via my remarkable time-saving invention on par with the latest SCRUM practices or even ShamWOW!"

I don't place much stock in the idea that the wheel/axle concept is useless without draft animals. Any society that hauls food or supplies will get a LOT of mileage out of a simple wheelbarrow. And that's as easy as making one wheel, a short axle, two forked sticks, and a basket. Easy but not at all obvious, of course.

Jared Diamond mentions something interesting. He claims that in the mountainous, llama-ridden regions where wheels are largely useless, the people had already invented wheels. But they used them as toys for children.

In the lowlands less than 100 miles away, ideal terrain for wheeled conveyances, they had no llamas. They also had wheels, albeit tiny wheels attached to toys.

It wasn't that they were astonishingly stupid to not understand the wheel- they had wheels, for their toys. It was, instead, that they had no other use for it.

I thought Guns Germs & Steel was an excellent book.

... and yet, and yet - the wheelbarrow is an extremely useful machine.

In mountainous, rocky terrain? Hike much? There's a reason why backpacks are used on hikes, and not wheelbarrows.

Indeed. The travois (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travois) was invented in the Americas and was widely used even after the introduction of the wheel post-contact (in the fur trade for example) where no reliable roads existed.

Yes, thanks - I've hiked quite long stretches of the Inca trail... I reckon you can get a wheelbarrow along without too much trouble (pulling it, anyway).

Wheels alone don't do much good. You also need roads. I could imagine those where not very common in the jungle and the mud. (Might be that in some places, like deserts, roads are not necessary, but still).

The question for this millennium will be, "Why did peoples of the New World fail to get good broadband?"

because they didn't have roads?the only people I would expect to invent wheels are agrarian plains dwellers (agrarian society affords more uses for transporting food and commodities)

"The fact is that most civilizations in the Old World didn't invent the wheel either--instead, they borrowed it from some other culture."

That's the essential point. Much of the Old World was a single area for long-distance trade and conquest, and the chariot in particular spread the idea of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles to many places where that technology was not invented, but rather adopted from invading peoples.

If I'm understanding the first part of the answer, he's sayin the wheel was not invented in the New World because there was no inventor of the wheel in the New World.

Kind of sounds like some of the answers I used to put on extra credit sections of tests when I wasn't sure : )

I think the more interesting and pertinent question, which he barely touched on, is why do some societies invent and adopt things and put them to all kinds of use while other societies either don't invent them or invent them without ever adapting and applying them to their full potential?

Taking off my PC hat, I think this probably describes the difference between a stagnant civilization and a dynamic one. (Bet I'll get the downmods for that one!)

> why do some societies invent and adopt things and put them to all kinds of use while other societies either don't invent them or invent them without ever adapting and applying them

This may also be why:


They almost invented the wheel when they invented the Mayan calendar. It's a wheel, but instead of a hole in the center being used for an axle, they put the head of one of the winners/loosers of those court bat games. So close but yet so far. See http://crankyphoneguy.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/mayancalan.... That's my theory, anyway.

So it would've worked if the Mayans were a lot taller, axially symmetric, and stiffer under rigor mortis?

"some 3,000 of 20,000 workers died dragging one particularly massive stone, according to chronicles"

Likely the chieftan was quite fond of telling about how many people died to move his rock. If you can do dumb shit, and stay chief, you must be a powerful chief indeed.

Which is to assert that one also needs the right motives before invention.

I thought it was to do with terrain

The wheel in itself isn't anything grand. Its just a circular object which is quite useless on it's own.

You must invent 2 wheels, an axle and something to attach them to. Thus you have a use for the wheel as a starting point.

However wheels do not allow you to haul large super-heavy blocks for pyramid construction, you need a bunch of wooden sticks and manpower at best.

So yea a wheel was quite a unique invention. I am willing to bet 3000 years from now if humans still exist, someone will be saying "yea I can't believe people lived without this electricity thing... its so damn obvious! A two-year old can invent it."

A one-wheeled vehicle is hardly useless on it's own.


Still needs an axle, though, and making those things out of wood is surprisingly difficult.

I was expecting an answer to sort of emphasise the cliché of no need to reinvent the wheel just work within it. We as people tend to stick with what we have and make it better rather than scratch it all together and start anew, hence perhaps those ancient civilisations came up with something else which performed the same function.

One person, several people.

If you take each group of people in the New World to be an item, then the title is essentially saying "why didn't the various different groups of people in the New World invent the wheel" - it's trying to emphasize that each of group of people is actually being considered a singular entity. Whether or not this is actually grammatically correct, I don't know, though intuitively it seems quite reasonable to me (which is generally a good first approximation of grammatical accuracy for native speakers).

It's correct.

"Why did the various people..." is shorter than your comment.

One people, several peoples.

"People" is not only the plural of person... it carries several meanings, in this context : "The entire body of persons who constitute a community, tribe, nation, or other group by virtue of a common culture, history, religion, or the like: the people of Australia; the Jewish people."

From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/people

Ignorant grammatical objections like this are just pure pollution in comment sections and warrant a full removal of the whole thread, including my comment.

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