As Matthew Stirling and his team were dodging ticks and unearthing stelae in Tres Zapotes, they found a cache of fifteen upside-down pottery bowls tucked into the ground six feet below the surface. The bowls protectively covered thirty-five toy-size, decorated figurines and twelve small, painted clay discs. Among the figurines were two dogs and a jaguar, each of which had thin tubes joining its two front feet and its two back feet. The discs lay beside them. Similar finds have been made further north, near Mexico City.
In the 1980s I saw the Tres Zapotes animals, or ones like them, at a museum in the Yucatán Peninsula. I was there with an Italian engineer whom I had met by chance a few hours before. Well before me, the engineer figured out the significance of the tubes between the figurines’ feet. “Those are for axles,” he said. “And those”—pointing to the discs—“must be the wheels.” Looking at the little figures, it seemed obvious that they had been equipped with wheels in precisely the form he suggested.
The engineer scrunched up his face with incredulity. Tres Zapotes dated back to at least 1000 B.C. So the Olmec and their successors must have had the wheel for more than two thousand years. “Why didn’t they use it for anything other than little toys?” he asked in Italian. “How could they not have understood that you could make bigger wheels and put them on carts? Hanno fatto proprio una stupidaggine, quei tipi.”
The word stupidaggine (an absurdity), similar enough in Italian and Spanish, rang out in the room, drawing stares. The engineer seemed not to care. He looked positively offended at the Olmec failure to see the world in the same way as a contemporary European engineer.
I’m giving my acquaintance a hard time, but his bafflement was easy for me to understand. In Mesopotamia, the wheel dates back to at least the time of Sumer. It was a basic part of life throughout Eurasia. Chariot wheels, water wheels, potter’s wheels, millstone wheels—one can’t imagine Europe or China without them. The only thing more mysterious than failing to invent the wheel would be inventing the wheel and then failing to use it. But that is exactly what the Indians did. Presumably countless thousands of people rolled the toylike figurines back and forth. How could none of them have thought of making their wheels bigger and more useful?
Some reasons are apparent. Because of the Pleistocene extinctions, the Americas lacked animals suitable for domestication into beasts of burden; without animals to haul carts, individuals on rough terrain can use skids almost as effectively. Even with animals, though, the Olmec would not have had much use for wheeled vehicles. Their country is so wet and boggy that Stirling’s horses sank to their chests in mud; boats were a primary means of transportation until recently. In addition one might note that Mesoamerican societies were not alone in their wheel-blindness. Although Mesopotamia had the wheel in about 4000 B.C., nearby Egypt did not use the wheel until two thousand years later, despite being in close contact. Still, none of this explains why no Mesoamerican society ever used wheels to make ceramics and grind maize. After all, every society in Eurasia eventually employed pottery wheels and mill wheels.
A better answer might be one implicit in Robert Temple’s book, The Genius of China, a history of Chinese science and technology published in 1998. According to Temple, the Chinese invented the moldboard plow by the third century B.C. Made of cast iron, the plowshare was shaped like a V, with the blade carving into the ground and the two arms arcing away like gull wings. Because the arms were curved, they turned the earth away from the blade, which both reduced friction and more effectively plowed the soil. (The “moldboard” is the curved plowshare; the name comes frommold, the Old German word for soil.)
The design of the moldboard plow is so obvious that it seems incredible that Europeans never thought of it. Until the Chinese-style plow was imported in the seventeenth century, farmers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and other states labored to shove what amounted to a narrow slab of metal through the earth. “The increased friction meant that huge multiple teams of oxen were required, whereas Chinese plows could make do with a single ox,” Temple explained. The European failure to think up the moldboard, according to science historian Teresi, was “as if Henry Ford designed the car without an accelerator, and you had to put the car in neutral, brake, and go under the hood to change speed. And then we did this for 2,000 years.”
European agricultural production exploded after the arrival of the moldboard plow. The prosperity this engendered was one of the cushions on which the Enlightenment floated. “So inefficient, so wasteful of effort, and so utterly exhausting” was the old plow, Temple wrote, “that this deficiency of plowing may rank as mankind’s single greatest waste of time and energy.” Millions of Europeans spent centuries behind the plow, staring at the blade as it ineffectively mired itself in the earth. How could none of them have thought of changing the design to make the plow more useful?
The complexity of a society’s technology has little to do with its level of social complexity—something that we, in our era of rapidly changing, seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping. Every society, big or little, misses out on “obvious” technologies. The lacunae have enormous impact on people’s lives—imagine Europe with efficient plows or the Maya with iron tools—but not much effect on the scale of a civilization’s endeavors, as shown by both European and Maya history. The corollary is that widespread and open trade in ideas is the best way to make up for the lacunae. Alas, Mesoamerica was limited in this respect. Like Europe, it was an extraordinarily diverse place with a shared cultural foundation. But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world.
Or seemed to be, anyway.