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Q: Use of the Wheel by ancient Mayans ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Use of the Wheel by ancient Mayans
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: harda-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 19 May 2004 23:06 PDT
Expires: 18 Jun 2004 23:06 PDT
Question ID: 349187

I would like to get some additional information regarding some facts I
recently read in the July/August editon of "Analog".  The quote I'm
interested in is:

"The Mayans had the wheel, but only used it for children's toys; they
did real cargo hauling with drag sledges"  -Eric Raymond

I'm looking for an article on, or at least expounding this point.  In
my own brief searching I hit a lot of sites with mystical and
'mysterious' facts about the Mayan Empire and their calendar wheel. 
I'd like to avoid more of that, an article or paper from a credible
source (university, expert, etc) would be appreciated.

To phrase my inquiry explicitly:

An article on the lack of use of the wheel for transportation of
materials and/or people by the ancient Mayans.

The more data and the more crediblity will make me more likely to
select your answer and tip you higher.

Thank You,

Subject: Re: Use of the Wheel by ancient Mayans
Answered By: digsalot-ga on 20 May 2004 00:56 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello there

Well, if it will help in the "crediblity" department, your question is
being answered by a semi-retired archaeologist.  Now I know that
really means no more than a hill of beans, but I thought I would just
throw it in.

We can start with a brief blurb from the E museum by Minnesota State University:
"The Mayan culture also domesticated the dog and the turkey, but had
no larger animals [or machines with wheels.]" - brackets mine. -

Next from University of Colorado at Boulder:

"The Maya would scout the jungle, bringing back heavy stones to carve
for these buildings. [They had no wheels to transport these heavy
stones.]" - brackets mine -

"They constructed vast cities with extensive trading zones across a
huge jungle landscape, with an amazing degree of architectural
perfection and variety- [all without any metal tools, wheels, or
beasts of burden.]" - brackets mine - this is from "Mayan History
Archaeological Zone & Historical Sites" -

"Imagine if you will a culture [without metal or wheels;] a society
ruled by families of god-humans; a ball game where the loser is
killed;..." - brackets mine - From Anthropology Museum at NIU--Copan

While none of these are articles expressly about wheels, they pretty
much establish that the Maya did not use wheels in any major way.

Now we can get to the wheeled toys and in the process, knock out the
concept of wheels for not only the Maya but for any "New World"

"For several weeks I have discussed numerous artifacts on exhibit at
the Ambergris Museum. There is, however, one item that cannot be found
in any collection of ancient Maya or for that matter any other New
World population. That object is a wheel." - quote from archaeologist,
Dr. Herman Smith, Ambergris Museum - The article does go
on to provide some information about Maya wheeled toys, which did
indeed exist, and numerous of these items have been recovered.

So as we can see, the Maya had the wheel. They used it in toys. They
used it for keeping time and astrology. They used it in their
sculpture and in their architecture. They used donut stones and round
stones as bases for pillars.  And they certainly knew that the wheel
rolled.  But - - they were smart enough to not try and use it in their
neighborhood.  The Yucatan peninsula is very, very, flat - but only in
a very general way.  But it is also very irregular, lots of rough
bumpy ground, mud and marshes, rivulets and hidden mires.   You
couldn't roll a wheel across it without major problems.

The Maya did build roads.  But the paving stones were mostly laid on a
sand base and the roads were designed for walking.  Wheeled carts
would have torn them up quite rapidly and once again there would be a
surface you couldn't roll a wheel across.  Not only that, but unless
they paved the land all around, they could not have taken the carts
off the road anyway.

There is also another very good reason the wheel was not used in the
"New World" by the Maya or anybody else, The only beast of burden
known anywhere in the Americas was the llama, a rather delicate little
critter which was restricted to certain parts of the Andes, and  was
used only as a pack animal.  Without draft animals you cannot do
extensive hauling with large sledges, and without sledges it will
never occur to you that the wheel would be a handy thing to have.

Now it is true that there were sledges hauled by human power.  And
some of these people even knew to put log rollers under the sledges. 
That system worked well enough that the idea of cutting the log
rollers into disks and fixing them to axels didn't occure to many
people.  Even ancient Egypt didn't have the wheel till after the
Hyksos invasion and they built their pyramids anyway.

Now you may search high and low and never find an article "expressly"
about the Maya and wheels.  The information is included within other
articles dealing with Maya civilization.  But there are enough of them
along the lines of those I have listed and linked to above to put
together the story.  The article you referenced may be one of the few
that exist, if the whole article was about the Maya that is.

However, there are articles about the use of wheels dealing with the
New world civilizations in general, and of course that includes the

Here is one of them:
"Why did the peoples of the New World fail to invent the wheel?" -
This article is from "The Straight Dope" which is a service of "The
Chicago Reader" - This is an excellent organization and I'm sure you
will find many articles of interest dealing with a wide variety of

Just a side note which has nothing to do with your question whatever
but I would like people to know.  You will notice I have avoided the
term "Mayan" when refering to the civilization, though it is used by
some of the websites I linked to. - - There is no Mayan civilization. 
There was a "Maya" civilization and "Mayan" is the name of the
language they used.  It is not a possessive noun and "Maya" is both
the singular and plural. (just what you wanted to know - right?)

search - Google
Terms - maya use +of +the wheel, maya wheeled toys, wheels +in new
world civilizations

All websites used are contained in the answer except one, which in the
name of full disclosure, I must identify as my own:

If I may clarify anything before rating the answer, please ask.


Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 20 May 2004 16:15 PDT
Thank you for your kind words and the extra.  If we can be of service
again in the future, we look forward to your questions.

harda-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $35.50
Fabulous, most excellent.

I sincerly appologize for my "americanizing" of the name of the Maya
Civilization.  That was indeed an entirely unknow fact, and I
appreciate how it will save me from looking dumb in the future.

I had originally intended to ask this as a two-part question, the
second part being, essentailly, "Why didn't the Maya use the wheel for
transportation?".  By giving a comprehensive answer you anticipated
that question and provided a wonderful link (to The Straight Dope). 
My tip includes the $15.50 I intended to pay for that question and the
$20 ($10/question) I allotted as a tip for a great answer.  You
deserve it, if not more.

FYI: The article I reference was, unfortunitely, not about Maya
history and culture.  The author used the sentence to create an
analogy in claiming the superiority of his ideas over another.  The
facts didn't quite click with me and I am glad you were so grateful as
to explain them in such wonderful detail.

Good luck with your semi-retired disease, I know some people with it
and they seem to work just as hard as they did before they caught it -
but only to get paid less.  I would say they have a ball doing so,
pehaps it evens out?  Either way you're part of a queer group of
especially talented and dedicated people and I much appreciate that
you have taken the time to answer my question.


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