Why didn’t the Incas invent the wheel?

This question has been bothering me since I visited an Inca Exhibit at the Florida International Museum a decade or so ago. When I visited the Macchu Picchu in Peru, 2 years back, I could not still find the answer. On the contrary, when our guide pointed to a 300-tonne stone in the Sacsay Huaman site in Cuzco, the question became more troubling. How did the Incas haul such large stones without using the wheel? You could also argue that the magnificent Macchu Picchu built on top of a mountain couldn’t also have been built without using some sort of wheeled transportation.

However, the fact remains that Incas did not use the wheel. I was discussing this conundrum with Priya Raju, she asked a couple of interesting questions – did other mesoamerican cultures like Aztecs and Mayas use the wheel? What about other primitive cultures in sub-saharan africa or the australian aborigines?

It turns out none of these cultures used the wheel – there are however some clay toys having wheels in mesoamerica and some scientists also believe that the Incas used wooden rollers to transport heavy objects. Given that the wheel was so rare in the ancient world,  it is reasonable to conclude that the wheel must have been the product of a breakthrough invention. This breakthrough was achieved by an unknown brilliant inventor in Sumeria who invented the wheel in 3500 B.C.  Scientists believe that the presence of draft animals in the middle east created the environment for the invention of the wheel. By contrast the new world did not have any draft animals.  From Sumeria, the wheel spread to the rest of the western world.

The wheel is such a fundamental invention that its hard to imagine the modern world advancing so much without the wheel.

1. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope answers the question “why did the peoples of the new world fail to invent the wheel”.

2. Our friend Joe Kissell taking on the Invention of the Wheel in ITOTD. As always, Joe points to some excellent references on this topic.

3. Roda on the Wikipedia. Its a malaysian page, but don’t despair, as you scroll down the material is in English and has some excellent content.

4. Chinese Bronze Age Wheeled Vehicles.  Ancient China seems to have invented the wheel independently.


  1. Anonymous said August 12, 2006, 1:47 pm:

    Whats interesting is the interspersed usage of Malay and English in the Malayasian Wikipedia!