First wheels

A prehistoric pot found in Poland and a wooden slab pulled out of a Slovenian marsh are the earliest evidence of wheels in Europe.

Bronocice pot, earliest depiction of a wheeled cart
Silar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When The Simpsons parodied 2001: A Space Odyssey, the alien obelisk inspires three key human inventions: fire, weapons, and the wheel.

Humans weren’t the first to control fire – that achievement goes to Homo erectus. Weapons too come well before humans were around; Homo heidelbergensis stuck spears into prey several hundred thousand years ago. But wheels… that’s all on Homo sapiens. We as a species can take credit for that one.

Potters’ wheels date back to early Mesopotamian civilisations, but the evidence for wheeled transport is a bit more recent. One of the first depictions of this radical new technology appear on a ceramic object known as the Bronocice pot. That’s it pictured above.

The Bronocice pot is notable for a simple inscription. Four circles surround a distinctly cart-like shape. The circles are in pairs, joined as if by a long pole or axle. A fifth circle sits in the centre, cargo or a seat. The pot is about five and a half thousand years old. It’s the oldest extant depiction of a cart.

For actual wheels, rather than pictures of them, we turn to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. In 2002, archaeologists pulled a wooden object out of the marshes just south of the city. It was clearly a wheel, with a hole for an axle. And radiocarbon dating puts it as more than five thousand years old. The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is the oldest wooden wheel in the world.

Ljubljana Marshes Wheel
Daniel Thornton, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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