Real smart folks, but no wheel

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.

Then the Spanish arrived from Europe in the sixteenth century they were astounded at the remarkable skills exhibited by the architects, builders and craftsmen of the New World. The calendar developed by the ancient Maya was more accurate than the calendar in use throughout Europe and the medical system in place among the residents of Middle America was superior to that of the Spanish. Yet, for all the advanced thinking, there was no utilitarian wheel; no carts, no wagons, no potter's wheel. Still the concept of the wheel was known throughout Middle America. Archeologists have recovered numerous wheeled toys, very much like those still made today for children. These toys were what we would call "pull toys" and they were generally made of fired clay in the form of an animal (real or imagined) standing on a platform supported by four ceramic wheels. A loop for the pull string was usually made around the neck or head of the creature. So while the idea of the wheel was in place there were no wheeled vehicles.

Oddly enough, the Maya built roads, or more correctly, causeways. These roads, called "sacbeob," meaning "white roads" were constructed of limestone and paved with a natural lime cement called "sascab". Often as wide as ten to twelve feet and raised between a foot or so to as much as seven or eight feet above the ground, the sacbeob connected various areas of settlement. The sacbeob at one Maya site (Coba) in the Yucatan of Mexico connects several major architectural groups, the longest running in an almost perfect straight line for over sixty miles! Archeologists have found what may have been stone rollers used to compact the road bed during construction. but no wheels.

While it is certainly true that the Maya did not possess the potter's wheel, they did make use of a device called the k'abal. This was a wooden disk that rested on a smooth board between the potter's feet. Spun by foot. the k'abal was not unlike the potter's wheel that had been in use in the Old World for over five thousand years. Still, there was no wheel.

Perhaps the closest the Maya came to a utilitarian wheel was the spindle 1 whorl. In ancient times the Maya wove cotton garments in much the same way as they do today. Cotton was spun into thread, using as a spindle a narrow pointed stick about a foot long, weighted near the lower end with a ceramic disk called a spindle whorl. Acting as a fly-wheel, it gave balance to the stick which was twirled with one hand while the cotton was fed by the other to the top of the stick. The twisting motion produced the thread which was then sent to the loon for weaving. Cotton material is still being produced in this way by Maya groups in several parts of Mexico and Guatemala. Some scholars believe the first wheeled toys were made with spindle whorls and spindle sticks as wheels and axles.

Why, then, were the Maya and other native populations without carts or wagons? Certainly they had the concept. so why were they transporting every thing on someone's back? The answer probably lies in the fact that there were no animals around suitable to pull a wagon or cart. Horses and burros were unknown in the New World. having become extinct thousands of years ago. Without draft animals a cart is not particularly useful. Then too. the area in which the Maya lived did not lend itself to road construction and that fact lives on until this very day. Rural areas are more easily accessed by foot or along narrow trails than by car or truck. Streams and rivers were the highways of the Maya. with extensive trade and commerce carried out by fleets of canoes. Ambergris Caye figured prominently in the maritime trade and our international border with Mexico was constructed by the Maya to facilitate canoe passage. More about that another time.

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