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Mexicolore contributor Javier Urcid

The Concept of the Wheel in Ancient Mesoamerica

We are sincerely grateful to Javier Urcid, Professor of Anthropology and Jane’s Chair Professor of Latin American Studies, Brandeis University, Massachusetts (USA) for this intriguing article on the perennial question of whether the wheel was ‘known’ in ancient Mesoamerica. This is an extended, English language version of the original Spanish article written by Professor Urcid in Arqueología Mexicana (Sep-Oct 2017).

Pic 1: A water wheel driving a mill; Codex Tepetlaoztoc (early colonial) fol. 42v (detail). British Museum
Pic 1: A water wheel driving a mill; Codex Tepetlaoztoc (early colonial) fol. 42v (detail). British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

In circles of specialists and non-specialists the question remains as to why the wheel was not invented in Mesoamerica, a question that implicitly presupposes two pernicious ideas: 1) that technological changes are part of an incremental and unilinear development of the human intellect detached from a social, political, and economic context, and 2) that the concept underlying the use of the wheel is only applicable to mechanized or motorized transport technologies. Hence, the absence of rolling conveyance in pre-Hispanic times is used to paternalistically compare the “achievements” of various civilizations, perpetuating in turn a western and colonialist perspective in the study of ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

Pic 2: Aztec spindle whorl designs - illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias (top); ceramic spindle whorls with sun and flower motifs from Xaltocan, Mexico (bottom)
Pic 2: Aztec spindle whorl designs - illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias (top); ceramic spindle whorls with sun and flower motifs from Xaltocan, Mexico (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

In a seminal publication spearheaded by Alfonso Caso, and with contributions by Matthew Stirling, Samuel Lothrop, Eric Thompson, José García Payón and Gordon Ekholm titled “Did the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica know the wheel” [¿Conocieron la Rueda los Indígenas Mesoamericanos? (1946)], Caso argued that the concept of rotational movement has, in addition to its implementation in transport technologies, various other applications like the spindle-whorl to twist thread (pic 2), the concave bottom as a basis for manually manufacturing ceramic containers (pic 5), wooden logs to slide huge blocks of stone or other heavy objects, and the possible limestone rollers that were apparently used as compacters and levelers in the construction of roads in certain places of the Yucatan Peninsula. To this, we can add the small impressions through cylindrical stamps (Borhegyi 1970) and the use of the drill (to make fire, hollow stone vessels, pierce ornaments of various materials, or to make trepanations - pic 6).

Pic 3: Wheeled whistles and figurines manufactured in the 8th century A.D. (see below for further details)
Pic 3: Wheeled whistles and figurines manufactured in the 8th century A.D. (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

In that same publication, Caso and his colleagues also highlighted the few examples known at that time of figurines and clay whistles representing various animals that had been found along with small ceramic discs with a perforation in the center. Caso, Stirling and Ekholm argued convincingly that these examples had to be originally rolling objects that had wooden axes - the wood already decayed over time - and four wheels (pic 3). Based on the many utilitarian applications of the concept of rotary motion and the evidence provided by the wheeled figurines and whistles, Caso and his colleagues concluded that the wheel was an independent invention in Mesoamerica, and in addition to having several practical uses, it had another one of a symbolic order.

Pic 4: Two pre-Hispanic cylindrical seals from Veracruz in the Anthropology Museum in Xalapa (see below for further details)
Pic 4: Two pre-Hispanic cylindrical seals from Veracruz in the Anthropology Museum in Xalapa (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

With a few exceptions (Hernández 1950, 1969, von Winning 1960, López Valdés 1966, Boggs 1973, Stocker et al. 1986, Diehl and Mandeville 1987), the idea that rolling figurines and whistles were toys has persisted ever since. This is despite the fact that - as Hernández correctly observed (1950: 39) - “the toy is almost always a small replica of larger-scale models”, in addition to the fact that the contexts of the few well documented examples do not seem to support the idea (Stirling 1940, 1962, Diehl and Mandeville 1987). In turn, the interpretation that wheeled figurines and whistles were conceived and used as means of teaching and as children’s entertainment has led scholars to reflect on the case of the wheel in Mesoamerica in a limited way.

Pic 5: The manufacture of round vessels without a potter’s wheel (see below for further details)
Pic 5: The manufacture of round vessels without a potter’s wheel (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

Several authors cling to the idea that cultural and technological innovations can only have a point of origin in time and space, and adopt the diffusionist model to argue that the concept of the wheel in Mesoamerica, even if it had a symbolic application, must have been a loan from the Middle East or Europe (but before the 16th century!) (López Valdés 1966). Even much of the discussion on Mesoamerican wheeled objects has focused on determining where the innovation originated and how it spread (Von Winning 1950).

Pic 6: Trepanations done with a drilling technology (see below for further details)
Pic 6: Trepanations done with a drilling technology (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

Other authors take technological innovations as a teleological process. In the same dialogue headed by Caso, Stirling suggests a notion of technology that is exclusively focused on efficiency and progress. He states: “It seems unbelievable that having known for five centuries the principle of the wheel no one would have thought of using it more generally. It is more acceptable to assume that by relying on human locomotion, and being constrained by the limitations of the terrain, they did not realize its value as a practical means of improving transport (Caso et al., 1946: 200). Likewise, in a joint announcement of the Center for Naval Analysis (in Virginia) and the Franklin Institute (in Philadelphia) that sought professionals in physics, mathematics, and economics, it was professed that “the pre-Columbian Indians had wheeled toys, but no wheeled load-carrying vehicles. Even with a man as prime mover they could have doubled or tripled the loads over their sometimes excellent roads. They failed to exploit their inventiveness. One of the several missions of the Navy’s Operations Evaluation Group is to insure that new concepts do not remain in the toy stage if they can be used profitably to carry a load” (Anonymous 1963: i).

Pic 7: Aztec porters at the service of merchants on their travels; Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 7: Aztec porters at the service of merchants on their travels; Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

In more recent discussions it has been commented that “transport technology was also quite simple. Although the use of the wheel was understood (as evidenced by wheeled toys), it was not applied to transportation because of the lack of suitable draft animals and the tortuous mountain topography. Therefore all land transport in ancient Mexico was carried out by human bearers (specialists known [in nahuatl] as tlameme), while water transport by canoe was common in both inland and coastal settings (Smith 1987: 239).
Such shortsightedness, which alludes to a progressive vision, or lack of ingenuity, or to maximization as an intrinsic value to all human endeavor, immediately encounters multiple obstacles.

Pic 8: The wheel in hauling devices mobilized by human force (see below for further details)
Pic 8: The wheel in hauling devices mobilized by human force (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

The lack of drafting animals is not necessarily a limitation to apply the principle of rotary movement to the wheel, since it is possible to devise wheeled transport technologies using human force (pic 8), and many regions of Mesoamerica are characterized by flat geological formations and alluvial valleys, and not only for mountainous landscapes. The ancient settlers of the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, built roads delimited by stone walls (sakbejo’ob) that sometimes were filled up to a height of two and a half meters to compensate for the uneven topography, have a width of up to fifteen meters and connect buildings within the same community (the shortest known with an extension of 150 meters), or link the monumental centers of distant settlements (the longest with a length of 100 kilometers). But these roads, in addition to materializing power relations, were used for pedestrian traffic, including the movement of merchandise, processions, and pilgrimages.

Pic 9: Palanquins in Mesoamerica (see below for further details)
Pic 9: Palanquins in Mesoamerica (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

Rather, and as Hernandez said (1950: 40), the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica did not apply the concept of revolving movement to transportation “simply because they did not want to, because of atavistic concepts worthy of being taken into account.” In a perceptive way, Hernández emphasized the indigenous ethos towards sacrifice and the offering of physical effort to the deities. Today, in Western thought, the constant technological innovation that leads to consumerism is valued, but in other cultures - ancient and modern - greater value is given to conservatism. In ancient Mesoamerica there were multiple technological innovations through time (metallurgy is a good example), but in other domains such as in lithics and carved stone, traditionalism dominated. Regarding transport technologies, we can also mention the desire for the symbolic display of social rank. Thus, the privilege of the rulers, nobles, and even material and human personifications of deities, was emphasized in public contexts through their hauling in litters (pic 9). No wonder indigenous labor to carry American and European explorers who were unwilling to exert physical endurance typified the colonialist stage in the early history of Mesoamerican archaeology (pic 13).

Pic 10: Wooden frames for cargo and loaders in Mesoamerica (see below for further details)
Pic 10: Wooden frames for cargo and loaders in Mesoamerica (see below for further details) (Click on image to enlarge)

Explaining why it was unnecessary to implement the concept of rotary movement in wheelbarrows, carts, or any other human-powered vehicle also requires considering the economic context of ancient Mesoamerican societies. On the one hand one has to take into account the type of resources and goods that needed to be transported, as well as the high costs of building and maintaining in the long term the necessary infrastructure for wheeled vehicles (leveled roads and bridges). On the other hand, there was the availability and cheapness of human labor institutionalized in slavery, tribute in work, and even prestations from personal labor. In turn, the three aforementioned factors led to the development of elaborate wooden frames that since ancient times and even as recent as the mid-twentieth century were used by carriers to transport large quantity of goods while skillfully maintaining their balance (pic 10).

Pic 11: Supersonic commercial flights allowed travel from London-New York in only 3.5 hours, and by 2000, the round-trip ticket cost US$7,000. This Air France Concorde aircraft is currently on display at the Auto & Technik Museum, Sinsheim, Germany
Pic 11: Supersonic commercial flights allowed travel from London-New York in only 3.5 hours, and by 2000, the round-trip ticket cost US$7,000. This Air France Concorde aircraft is currently on display at the Auto & Technik Museum, Sinsheim, Germany (Click on image to enlarge)

We can use a contemporary example to illustrate how, despite the existence of specific technological knowledge, high costs do not allow their implementation. Such is the case of supersonic commercial air transport and the eventual collapse of the Concorde Project, the joint initiative of the governments of England and France that eventually led to the construction of 20 aircraft, including six prototypes and test planes, capable of flying at 2,180 km per hour (pic 11). Although the project began around 1954, the 14 passenger planes that operated between 1976 and 2003 are now living museums and silent witnesses of the economic and political forces that made them “land.”

Pic 12: Artist’s impression of two Maya load carriers using a tumpline to deliver goods to a local market
Pic 12: Artist’s impression of two Maya load carriers using a tumpline to deliver goods to a local market (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources and additional notes:-
• Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2 (top): image scanned from our own copy of Indian Art of Mexico & Central America by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957; pic 2 (bottom) photo by/courtesy of Elizabeth Brumfiel
• Pic 3 (supplied by Javier Urcid): a) whistle in the shape of a dog. Tres Zapotes, Veracruz; b) whistle in the shape of a dog. Pavón, Pánuco, Veracruz; c) whistle in the shape of a monkey. Unknown provenience. Milwaukee Public Museum; d) wheeled figurine in the shape of an alligator. Probably from Ignacio de la Llave, Veracruz. National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.; e) vessel with the skeletal remains of a child accompanied by two bowls and three wheeled whistles shaped as jaguars. El Zapotal, Veracruz. Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Veracruz.
• Pic 4: photo taken from the online catalogue of the Anthropology Museum in Xalapa (Hall 5, cat. no. 00631)
• Pic 5: (photo by Javier Urcid): Woman from San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca, handcrafting a round pot with a single lump of clay and using a stone base with a concave depression to rotate the forming vessel

Pic 13: Traveling By Silla, by Frederick Catherwood. Scene in Chiapas. Engraving from 1841 book, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan” by John Lloyd Stephens
Pic 13: Traveling By Silla, by Frederick Catherwood. Scene in Chiapas. Engraving from 1841 book, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan” by John Lloyd Stephens (Click on image to enlarge)

• Pic 6: (supplied by Javier Urcid): The fragmented skull of Burial III-19 from Monte Albán, Oaxaca, showing on the far right part of a lesion caused probably by a neoplasm. To the left of it are two drilled trepanations, the one on the far left earlier and complete. The one in the middle was subsequent and was left unfinished likely due to the death of the patient. The mark indicates the use of a hollow drill bid. The latter were cut from the long bones of large mammals (including humans) and fixed at the end of a bow drill. The illustrated bone bid comes from Brawhbel, Oaxaca. The Zuni bow drill shown here was used early in the 20th century to perforate turquoise plaques
• Pic 7: Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 8 (supplied by Javier Urcid): a) prisoners pulling a cart loaded with logs. Frieze in the Northwest Palace, Nimrud, Iraq (865-860 B.C.); b) horse on wheels as an attack vehicle. Representation on a ceramic vessel (detail) from the island of Mykonos, Aegean Sea (675-650 B.C.); c) pulled rickshaw in Calcutta, India (20th century); d) loader transporting cargo in a wheelbarrow with a sail, China (20th century)
• Pic 9 (supplied by Javier Urcid): a) personage in a palanquin (2nd century A.D.), one-piece ceramic tableau from Western Mesoamerica. Los Angeles County Museum; b) a ruler named 4 Lord in a litter (2nd century B.C.), carved on Monument 21, Izapa, Chiapas; c) personage in a palanquin (8th century A.D.), graffiti in Building B, Rio Bec, Campeche; d) personage in a litter (8th century A.D.), painted on a polychrome vessel from Chama, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. University Museum Philadelphia; e) personage in a palanquin (8th century A.D.), ceramic figurine, probably from Jaina, Campeche
• Pic 10 (supplied by Javier Urcid): a) cargo frame with merchandise (7th century A.D.), mural in Building 2-sub, Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala; b) a woman (with a child) and a man who transport merchandise using a belt and head strap (9th century A.D.), painted on a polychrome vessel found in the Main sink hole at Chichén Itzá, Yucatan; c) carrier of large clay pots (20th century), highlands of Guatemala; d) cargo frame with merchandise (20th century), highlands of Guatemala
• Pic 11: supplied by Javier Urcid
• Pic 12: Illustration drawn for Mexicolore by Steve Radzi
• Pic 13: Image from Wikipedia [Litter (vehicle)].

Bibliography:-
• Anonymous 1963 Tomorrow’s Navy: “Steaming at 200 Knots”? The Journal of the Operations Research Society of America, Vol. 11 (3): i
• Boggs, Stanley 1973 Salvadorian varieties of wheeled figurines. Institute of Maya Studies of the Museum of Science. Contributions to American Archaeology 1. Miami
• Caso, Alfonso, et al. 1946 ¿Conocieron la Rueda los Indígenas Mesoamericanos? Cuadernos Americanos, Año V (1): 193-207
• Borhegyi, Stephan F. 1970 Wheels and Man. Archaeology, Vol. 23 (1): 18-25
• Diehl, Richard A., and Margaret D. Mandeville 1987 Tula, and the wheeled animal effigies in Mesoamerica. Antiquity, Vol. 61 (232): 239-246
• Hernández, Francisco Javier 1950 El Juguete Popular en México: Estudio de Interpretación. Ediciones Mexicanas, vol. 10
• (Do.) 1969 Were there Toys in Pre-Hispanic Times? In El Juguete Mexicano, Artes de México, No. 125: 10-11
• López Valdés, Pablo 1966 La Rueda en Mesoamérica. Cuadernos Americanos, Vol. 145 (2): 137-144
• Stirling, Matthews W. 1940 Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle. The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 78 (3): 309-334
• (Do.) 1962 Wheeled toys from Tres Zapotes, Veracruz. Amerindia, Prehistoria y Etnologia del Nuevo Mundo, No. 1: 43-49
• Stocker, Ferry, Barbara Jackson, and Harold Riffell 1986 Wheeled Figurines from Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico. Mexicon, Vol. 8 (4): 69-73
• Smith, Michael, E. 1987 Archaeology and the Aztec Economy: The Social Scientific Use of Archaeological Data. Social Science History, vol. 11 (3): 237-259
• Winning, Hasso von 1950 Animal figurines on wheels from ancient Mexico. The Masterkey, Vol. 24 (5): 154 - 159
• (Do.) 1960 Further Examples of figurines on wheels from Mexico. Ethnos 2: 63-72.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 28th 2018

emoticon In ancient Mesoamerica rulers were traditionally carried by servants in a litter (a fancy one is called a ‘palanquin’). What would we call this litter if the ruler was dying and on his way to pronounce the name of his successor? A ‘will-chair’.

The carrying frame

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