Historically speaking, wheels are a much newer development than you might expect. The oldest recovered specimen is a wooden Slovenian model built sometime between 5,100 and 5,350 years ago. By then, humans had already been practicing agriculture for several millennia—in fact, farming may date all the way back to 12,000 BCE. Canoes and animal domestication also vastly predate the wheel.
Why did this invention take so long to get rolling? Well, from a vehicular standpoint, spinning wheels are basically useless unless they’re attached to a secure shaft of some sort. It was only after mankind finally built such stabilizers—which we now call “axles”—that the wheel began realizing its full potential. “The wheel-and-axle concept was the real stroke of brilliance,” says anthropologist David Anthony. That idea required extreme finesse, which only metal tools could adequately provide. However, these didn’t become widespread until around 4000 BCE, hence our delay.
Slovenia’s aforementioned artifact emerged from the Ljubljana Marshes back in 2002. With a 27.5-inch radius, it was presumably one of two wheels affixed to an ancient pushcart. Yet, impressive as the relic is, a Polish pot—made anywhere from 5650 to 5385 years ago—upstages it. Sketched upon this container is a crude wagon, thought by many to be the first artistic depiction of wheeled transportation.
Back in those days, Northern Europe was populated by what archaeologists call “The Funnel Beaker Culture.” Sophisticated agriculturalists, these people just might have been the first to construct true wheels. Other candidates include the Mesopotamians and the largely-sedentary Cucuteni-Tripolye culture. That latter group built small, four-wheeled toys in modern-day Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania.
Ultimately, it’s possible that many groups independently invented the wheel. Ancient Mesoamericans, for example, also produced little wheeled figurines despite having no known contact with their old world counterparts. However, the western hemisphere suffered from a near-total lack of domestication-ready animals capable of pulling carts. Thus, full-sized wheels don’t appear to have become popular on either American continent before overseas invaders started showing up.