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No Wheel!

What would it be like to live in a place where something as basic as the wheel had never been invented?

A Contemprary Look Made with Ancient Methods

That question became no longer theoretical for me a couple months ago near Taos, New Mexico. I was in a shop run by two pleasant and earnest young artists who lived in the nearby pueblo. They were explaining how the lovely pottery there had been made – without a potter’s wheel. Instead, the artisans worked in the ancient way, winding thin coils of rope-like clay in a circular spiral to build up the walls of their pots.

Wow!. I thought. That’s at least a hundred times more work. But prior to Columbus, it was the only way. The wheel was unknown in the western hemisphere. As were horses.
Looking at some of the larger clay pots, I reflected that the implications for the pace of development in pre-Columbian cultures must have been profound. As an avid archaeology and anthropology type, I had read Jared Diamond’s excellent book, Guns, Germs and Steel – letting his execrable PC whining bead up and roll off on my way to the treasure trove of his top-notch scientific thinking. But Diamond’s key point had never before been so clear to me on a personal and practical level: an overwhelming number of things about life in this hemisphere were stacked against human progress.

Straw Figures Made with Pre-Columbian Methods

Until seeing and touching the pots in that shop, I’d mostly thought of the wheel in terms of transportation. But now, I could also understand how it’s lack held back even things like what pottery was best at: long-term storage of food. Let alone holding back the invention of machines.

As Diamond and I both assert, it wasn’t at all that the people in the western hemisphere were backward, they were held back by geography conspiring with plant and animal biology.

And, at that moment, I also knew why my wife thought that the exquisite pot she wanted, produced in the pre-Columbian way, really was a bargain at the daunting price marked on the small card next to it. It must have taken the artisan months to make. And it was lovely. Of course it would cost a lot.

And so did the other one she fancied…

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