11 Inventions That Came Before the Wheel

ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The wheel is the classic example of early human invention—a quintessential innovation that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. But in the scope of human history, the wheel is actually a rather young creation. Ancient Mesopotamians in modern-day Iraq became the first people to adopt the wheel only around 5500 years ago, and fairly recent cultures from other parts of the world have managed to make impressive technical accomplishments without wheels at all. (The wheel-less people of Easter Island, for example, transported and erected their towering moai statues less than 1000 years ago.) From booze to the bow and arrow, here are 11 innovations that predate the wheel.

1. BOOZE // 7000 BCE

variety of cocktails on a bar
iStock

Some archaeologists are starting to think that the world's first farmers domesticated grains to make beer, not bread. While the extent of alcohol's influence on human civilization is still debated, its antiquity is not. The oldest evidence for booze so far comes from 9000-year-old chemical traces of a fermented cocktail found on a drinking vessel in Jiahu, China.

2. CLOTHING // 150,000 BCE

A dress discovered in Egypt that is more than 5000 years old
UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

We're all born naked, but most of us are forced to wear clothes shortly afterwards. Since textiles, leathers, and furs tend to disintegrate over time, scientists have had to get creative in their quest to pinpoint the origin of clothing. The dress above, discovered in Egypt, is at least 5100 years old, but that makes it pretty recent. Clothes actually date back much further: A stone tool from a site in Germany has traces of tanned animal skin, which suggests that humans' Neanderthal cousins were wearing hides 100,000 years ago, and a study from 2011 proposed that the origin of clothes can be traced to the evolution of clothing lice, around 170,000 years ago.

3. JEWELRY // 110,000 BCE

K. Gavrilov in Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2018

Garments certainly helped humans to compensate for lost body fur and to move into colder climates, but clothes may have also been a cultural invention. As archaeological evidence of jewelry can attest, humans have also been adorning their bodies for decorative purposes for a very long time. Among the oldest surviving pieces of jewelry are 82,000-year-old pierced shells covered in red pigment from a cave in Morocco and a 130,000-year-old eagle-claw necklace found in a Neanderthal cave in Croatia. The above burial, found in Russia at a site called Sunghir, is younger, but still ancient: The man was buried more than 30,000 years ago with an elaborate array of mammoth ivory beads and arm bands, a headband of pierced fox teeth, and a pendant. (Some of the items may once have been sewn onto clothing.)

4. BOATS // 43,000–8000 BCE

Dugout boats at Kierikki Stone Age Centre

Before animal-drawn carts became a preferred mode of transport, there were rafts and boats. The 10,000-year-old Pesse canoe found in the Netherlands is thought to be the world's oldest surviving boat. But humans likely figured out how to navigate the seas for fishing and exploration even earlier. After all, people somehow crossed the seas to populate Australia, Indonesia, and islands in the Pacific at least 45,000 years ago.

5. CALENDARS // 8000 BCE

An illustration of how a 10,000-year-old
© Google Earth, Plan based on Murray et al. 2009, fig. 3, in Internet Archaeology // CC BY 3.0

Long before the gear-wheels of clocks were invented, humans used sophisticated methods to track the passage of time. One group of archaeologists has claimed that the oldest known calendar could be a 10,000-year-old series of 12 pits found in Scotland that appear to mimic the lunar cycle. You can see in the image above how the researchers imagine the system to have worked.

6. GEOGRAPHIC MAPS // 12,000 BCE

12000-year-old
Utrilla et. all in Journal of Human Evolution

Just as they had to invent ways to track time, so, too, did humans have to figure out how to represent space so that they could navigate their world. Archaeologists still debate the meaning of the earliest rock art, but some of the oldest examples of possible prehistoric maps come from Abauntz Cave in Spain. The 14,000-year-old stone tablets are thought to depict mountains, rivers, and ponds, intersected with routes and hunting game-plans. You can see the top and bottom of one tablet above.

7. COOKING // 1.8 MILLION–500,000 BCE

iStock

Sometime after humans learned to control fire, they invented cooking. When you start breaking down meat and plants over an open flame, you don't have to expend as much energy chewing and digesting those foods. A conservative estimate for the rise of cooking would be 500,000 years ago, and according to a recent article in Scientific American, some researchers argue that cooking came about 1.8 million years ago by Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. They propose that this development in human evolution is what allowed our brain size to increase.

8. MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS // 41,000 BCE

bone flute
Sascha Schuermann, AFP/Getty Images

The darkened passageways inside Germany's Hohle Fels cave get even spookier when you imagine the sounds of flutes echoing through the caverns. This is the archaeological site where the world's oldest musical instruments—43,000-year-old bone flutes made of vulture wing and mammoth tusk—have been found. Want to hear what they might have sounded like? One researcher made a replica of the vulture-wing flute, and NPR has the tune.

9. GLUE // 200,000 BCE

glue spilling from bottle onto wood table
iStock

The superglue in your toolbox and Elmer's in your kid's classroom have a long pedigree. About 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals roaming Europe used adhesive tar from birch bark to fix their stone spear tips to handles. Recent experiments suggest this type of glue was complex and difficult to make.

10. POTTERY // 18,000 BCE

archaeologist with ancient pottery
Marvin Recinos, AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of years before the invention of the wheel, people were making vessels for drinking, eating, and storage by pinching, rolling, or coiling clay into shape and baking it until hard. The oldest crude ceramic vessels come from China and date back 20,000 years. The invention of the wheel allowed for the rise of wheel-thrown pottery. Some even argue that the potter's wheel was probably the first type of wheel ever created.

11. BOW AND ARROW // 7000 BCE

rock art of hunters using bows and arrows
iStock

The remains of five bows crafted 9000 years ago were found at the Stone Age settlement of Holmegårds Mose in Denmark. But bows and arrows may have been invented far earlier by savvy hunters who wanted an efficient weapon to kill prey from a distance. Some archaeologists have argued that Sibudu Cave in South Africa contains evidence of 64,000-year-old stone-tipped arrows and bows.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

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