11 Inventions That Came Before the Wheel

Before we could invent wheels to transport goods from one place to another, we needed geographic maps to tell us where to go (and beer to help us get there).
We invented jewelry (such as this ancient Egyptian beaded necklace) before we invented the wheel.
We invented jewelry (such as this ancient Egyptian beaded necklace) before we invented the wheel. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The wheel is the classic example of early human invention—a quintessential innovation that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. But in the scope of human history, the wheel is actually a rather young creation.

Ancient Mesopotamians in modern-day Iraq became the first people to adopt the wheel only around 5500 years ago, and fairly recent cultures from other parts of the world have managed to make impressive technical accomplishments without wheels at all. The wheel-less people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), for example, transported and erected their towering moai statues less than 1000 years ago.

From booze to bows and arrows, here are 11 innovations that predate the wheel.

Alcohol // 7000 BCE

An Egyptian tomb model from Meketra (circa 2160 BCE) shows a figure brewing beer.
An Egyptian tomb model from Meketra (circa 2160 BCE) shows a figure brewing beer. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Some archaeologists are starting to think that the world's first farmers domesticated grains to make beer, not bread. While the extent of alcohol’s influence on human civilization is still debated, its antiquity is not. The oldest evidence for booze so far comes from 9000-year-old chemical traces of a fermented cocktail found on a drinking vessel in Jiahu, China.

Clothing // 150,000 BCE

We're all born naked, but most of us are forced to wear clothes shortly afterwards. Since textiles, leathers, and furs tend to disintegrate over time, scientists have had to get creative in their quest to pinpoint the origin of clothing. The Tarkhan Dress, discovered in Egypt and now in the collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, is at least 5100 years old, but that makes it pretty recent. Clothes actually date back much further: A stone tool from a site in Germany has traces of tanned animal skin, which suggests that humans’ Neanderthal cousins were wearing hides 100,000 years ago, and a study from 2011 proposed that the origin of clothes can be traced to the evolution of clothing lice, around 170,000 years ago.

Jewelry // 110,000 BCE

Early Hellenistic gold earrings with Nike
Early Hellenistic gold earrings featuring the Greek goddess Nike. / Fine Art/GettyImages

Garments certainly helped humans to compensate for lost body fur and to move into colder climates, but clothes may have also been a cultural invention. As archaeological evidence of jewelry can attest, humans have also been adorning their bodies for decorative purposes for a very long time. Among the oldest surviving pieces of jewelry are 82,000-year-old pierced shells covered in red pigment from a cave in Morocco and a 130,000-year-old eagle-claw necklace found in a Neanderthal cave in Croatia. A burial found in Russia at a site called Sunghir is younger, but still ancient: The man was buried more than 30,000 years ago with an elaborate array of mammoth ivory beads and arm bands, a headband of pierced fox teeth, and a pendant. (Some of the items may once have been sewn onto clothing.)

Boats // 43,000–8000 BCE

Dugout boats at Kierikki Stone Age Centre
Dugout boats at Kierikki Stone Age Centre / Estormiz, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Before animal-drawn carts became a preferred mode of transport, there were rafts and boats. The 10,000-year-old Pesse canoe found in the Netherlands is thought to be the world's oldest surviving boat. But humans likely figured out how to navigate the seas for fishing and exploration even earlier. After all, people somehow crossed the seas to populate Australia, Indonesia, and islands in the Pacific at least 45,000 years ago.

Calendars // 8000 BCE

Long before the gear-wheels of clocks were invented, humans used sophisticated methods to track the passage of time. One group of archaeologists has claimed that the oldest known calendar could be a 10,000-year-old series of 12 pits found in Scotland that appear to mimic the lunar cycle.

Geographic Maps // 12,000 BCE

Stick navigation chart made from bamboo and cowrie shells
South Pacific Islanders made navigation charts from bamboo and cowrie shells to map the seas. / USC Pacific Asia Museum/GettyImages

Just as they had to invent ways to track time, so, too, did humans have to figure out how to represent space so that they could navigate their world. Archaeologists still debate the meaning of the earliest rock art, but some of the oldest examples of possible prehistoric maps come from Abauntz Cave in Spain. The 14,000-year-old stone tablets are thought to depict mountains, rivers, and ponds, intersected with routes and hunting game-plans.

Cooking // 1.8 Million–500,000 BCE

Sometime after humans learned to control fire, they invented cooking. When you start breaking down meat and plants over an open flame, you don't have to expend as much energy chewing and digesting those foods. A conservative estimate for the rise of cooking would be 500,000 years ago, and according to an article in Scientific American, some researchers argue that cooking came about 1.8 million years ago by Homo erectus, an ancestor of Homo sapiens. They propose that this development in human evolution is what allowed our brain size to increase.

8. Musical Instruments // 41,000 BCE

The Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia, was made from a cave bear bone about 43,000 years ago.
The Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia, was made from a cave bear bone about 43,000 years ago. / Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The darkened passageways inside Germany’s Hohle Fels cave get even spookier when you imagine the sounds of flutes echoing through the caverns. This is the archaeological site where the world’s oldest musical instruments—43,000-year-old bone flutes made of vulture wing and mammoth tusk—have been found. Want to hear what they might have sounded like? One researcher made a replica of the vulture-wing flute, and NPR has the tune.

9. Glue // 200,000 BCE

The superglue in your toolbox and Elmer’s in your kid’s classroom have a long pedigree. About 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals roaming Europe used adhesive tar from birch bark to fix their stone spear tips to handles. Experiments published in 2017 suggested this type of glue was complex and difficult to make.

10. Pottery // 18,000 BCE

A sherd of pottery painted with a humped bull and birds from the Indus Valley, circa 2600 BCE.
A sherd of pottery painted with a humped bull and birds from the Indus Valley, circa 2600 BCE. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Thousands of years before the invention of the wheel, people were making vessels for drinking, eating, and storage by pinching, rolling, or coiling clay into shape and baking it until hard. The oldest crude ceramic vessels come from China and date back 20,000 years. The invention of the wheel allowed for the rise of wheel-thrown pottery. Some even argue that the potter's wheel was probably the first type of wheel ever created.

11. Bow and Arrow // 7000 BCE

The remains of five bows crafted 9000 years ago were found at the Stone Age settlement of Holmegårds Mose in Denmark. But bows and arrows may have been invented far earlier by savvy hunters who wanted an efficient weapon to kill prey from a distance. Some archaeologists have argued that Sibudu Cave in South Africa contains evidence of 64,000-year-old stone-tipped arrows and bows.

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A version of this story was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2024.