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"Why They Lost the Wheel" Topic

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1,070 hits since 6 Jul 2018
©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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Aristonicus06 Jul 2018 10:05 p.m. PST

Interesting article I came across with ramifications as to how you depict your camps and baggage.

Why They Lost The Wheel

For a while there, the ox and the camel were eyeball to eyeball—but the ox didn't stand a chance.

Written by Richard W. Bulliet
Illustrated by Ed Davis

When the first motor car chugged defiantly off the road and into the desert an entire epoch in world history began to pass away, the epoch of the camel. After centuries of supremacy as a transport animal, centuries that had seen it become for millions of people the romantic symbol of the entire Middle East, the stalwart camel was at last facing unbeatable competition.

Yet once before this homely drama of competition between the camel and the wheel had been played out in nearly identical fashion, only in reverse. Once, in ancient times, the Middle East teemed with carts and wagons and chariots, but they were totally driven out by the coming of the camel.

For all the discussion there has been among archeologists about why advanced societies such as those in pre-Colombian Central and South America never invented wheeled transport, there has been little notice taken of the amazing fact that Middle Eastern society wilfully abandoned the use of the wheel, one of mankind's greatest inventions.

Paul B07 Jul 2018 2:47 a.m. PST

What an interesting article.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP07 Jul 2018 3:03 a.m. PST

An interesting read!

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP07 Jul 2018 8:07 a.m. PST

I don't know if I believe it 100%, but it's sure food for thought.

Vigilant07 Jul 2018 10:50 a.m. PST

Some really interesting points. Good find.

Dynaman878907 Jul 2018 11:39 a.m. PST

I'm impressed that it appears to be a rational, well written, and thought out piece instead of the normal drivel out on the web.

The Last Conformist08 Jul 2018 11:26 a.m. PST

Bulliet's written an entire book on the subject, called The Camel and the Wheel. I do recommend it.

Personal logo Bowman Supporting Member of TMP08 Jul 2018 4:10 p.m. PST

For all the discussion there has been among archeologists about why advanced societies such as those in pre-Colombian Central and South America never invented wheeled transport………

Ya, this is a common misconception.

First off, all these civilizations had the wheel. But it was used for small toys, and not for transport purposes.

Secondly, and most importantly, there were no suitable pack or draft animals available to most of the those in Central and South America. The notable exceptions are the camelids of western South America.

As for the camelids used by the Inca, most such as vicuña, alpacas and guanacos were too small, weak and very flighty for transport uses. That leaves the llama. Only this camelid was domesticated as a pack animal. But why not build carts? Turns out their draft capability was poor. Plus, the terrain would make carts less useful than simply loading up the animal itself.

Maybe camelids were never good at pulling things. Old world camels such as Bactrian and Dromedaries were always used as pack animals only.

Personal logo Swampster Supporting Member of TMP09 Jul 2018 12:03 a.m. PST

Dromedaries can be used to pull carts. From pictures, this would seem to be most common in the Indian sub-continent and even then in the areas which are flattest. The presence of modern roads also helps. The more rugged and varied terrain of the article in the OP contrasts with this.
The carts are usually fairly small two-wheeled types though the load often looks large. I doubt that they are ideal draught animals but are probably the best in those areas because of their survivability.
There are pictures showing Bactrians as draught animals but less commonly.

Personal logo Bowman Supporting Member of TMP10 Jul 2018 7:38 a.m. PST

Well they did tests of the draft capabilities of llamas. Seems like the cart they could pull was about the size of a wheelbarrow. Add to that the terrain issues and loading them as pack animals seemed to be a better use. I would assume Old world camels would be similar. For every picture of them pulling a cart, there are probably thousands of them as pack animals……(maybe). Lol.

Personal logo Swampster Supporting Member of TMP11 Jul 2018 12:01 p.m. PST

I cam across an Indian prevention of cruelty to animals law which gives acceptable maximum loads for various animals, including camels.
Seems that a pack camel shouldn't be loaded with more than 250 kg whereas a draught camel can draw a maximum of 1000 kg (incl. the two wheeled vehicle).
The draught weights for horses, mules and ponies are much lower. A bullock towing a cart with decent wheels can manage almost twice that of a camel.

There are various papers and books which also talk of the ability of the camel as a draught animal. There are various ways in which they are actually superior to other types of animals, but there are also disadvantages. One is noted that they tend to lie down once resting, so a cart and harness need to be made to cope with this. Another issue is more relevant to ploughing which is that camels really need one person to lead the camel and another to guide the plough, increasing the necessary manpower. The length of poles needed to cope with the camel's height also tend to increase the turning circle of ploughs and carts.

"For every picture of them pulling a cart, there are probably thousands of them as pack animals……(maybe). Lol."
As a completely unscientific study, I searched google for 'working camels'. On the first line of images, half were pulling carts. :)

Personal logo Bowman Supporting Member of TMP12 Jul 2018 12:31 p.m. PST

And I had only googled "camels" and got the opposite impression. Many images of them as pack animals, and none of them pulling carts.


But your point is taken, they are more manpower labour intensive.

And then scale that down significantly to the camelids that exist in the New World. Googling "working llamas" does produce a few pictures of llamas pulling small modern harness racing carts. But most are still pack animals.


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