“Aboriginal people never even invented the wheel.”

The following article by John T. Patten is the first in a series examining some of the most commonly stated and ridiculously racist beliefs held by many Australians. 

Kangaroo pulling a cart
Illustration by John T. Patten

Let’s start the series by examining something seemingly quite simple – the idea that the First Peoples of the land that we now call Australia had never invented the wheel. On the surface this might seem a straight forward statement, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. What the statement does is draw us into a conversation and allow us to shine a light on how little Australians and the world know about Aboriginal people, culture and our shared history.

“Aboriginal people had never invented the wheel.” OK, so whether accurate or not, what is the assumption based on? This like the majority of “facts” that the Australian public believe about the land’s First Peoples is based on very little evidence, either for or against. Australian knowledge of Aboriginal people and our 65,000 years of culture and history is rudimentary at best, and if we’re being honest it’s also incredibly outdated and inaccurate.

History is not always taught accurately

Most of the history textbooks in Australian schools are a rehash of the work produced by a previous generation of historians. Their work in turn was inspired by an earlier generation, who were quite limited in what they knew about Aboriginal people. Since then however anthropologists, linguists and First Peoples communities have worked together to produce a more accurate depiction of Australia’s 65,000 years of human history. This however has not filtered through into the school curriculum or the media, nor has it been made accessible to the broader Australian population.

Fact is, if you’re 35 years or older and didn’t study Aboriginal history at university or read specialist books, the only updates you’ve received beyond the simplistic concept of Aboriginal people you received in primary school is more than likely what you got from television.

You’ve heard about Mungo Man, you probably have 40,000 or 50,000 years as a figure in your head, rather than the 25,000 years of human habitation in Australia that you’d been taught in primary school, but you still hold to the notion that didgeridoos and dot paintings represent ancient Aboriginal culture, despite it being quite alien to the majority of us. That is at least until it was imported from the Western Desert and it became a part of our culture in the 1980’s (which in itself is another conversation).

In traditional society, Aboriginal people made circular discs that were rolled along the ground for use as target practice, helping young boys to learn how to hunt. Whilst the discs were never attached to a barrow or cart via an axle, thus not qualifying as a wheel, one must also examine the reason why.

What if…

If you were to be thrown back in time 300 years, along with a wheelbarrow, complete with the wooden wheels they had when first fashioned, how useful do you think the wheelbarrow would be, either to you, or anyone else? You’d be standing in an environment strewn with obstacles and burdened with an apparatus which would only slow you down. You’d observe that everyone around you are able to carry their tools, and their entire world of possessions upon their backs without even considering a want for an alternative, or a solution to their non-existent problem.

If an Aboriginal person was to be provided with a cart or wagon in such a scenario, what possible animal would they attach it to? Australia had no viable beasts of burden, prior to those that were brought here from across the seas. No horses, no cattle. Good luck in trying to get a kangaroo to pull a cart! A wheel provides an opportunity to either push, pull or carry, none of which had any real value in traditional Aboriginal society.

In order to benefit from the use of a wheel, not only would a culture need to change, It would need to be burdened with the problems generated by its adoption, i.e. In order to use a wheel you would need to build a more complicated device (a barrow or cart). In order to use the cart, you would need to expend your energy clearing a path, or building a road, and in order to build a road you would need to spend much of your time and energy constructing it whilst delegating people to specific industries, thereby completely changing the nature of the culture you deliberately maintained and nurtured for 65,000 plus years.

Short cultural memory

The racism which is inherent in believing that a complicated culture (civilization) is of a greater value than a less complicated one, is simply astounding. Particularly when considering the fact that those who believe such a thing are for the most part the descendants of a culture which is likely to have inherited the wheel, and many other technologies they reference, rather than one that invented them. But that’s par for the course – “white man’s technology” as it is often stated, or implied, is very often what has been inherited, as part of global culture, without acknowledgement of Asia, Africa and beyond. A mature nation would be able to acknowledge not just its British or European traditions, but also its global inheritance.

For Aboriginal people in Australia and the many Indigenous peoples around the globe, ours are cultures that speak of responsibility to the land, and to each other. Not only do we consider our actions in relation to these factors in the present, but we also take into consideration what the ramifications of our actions will be in relation to our children and great, great grandchildren.

We didn’t have the wheel. We bypassed it. It didn’t suit our needs. As a result we were not afforded some opportunities for transporting materials and people, but we also lived without the associated range of problems of industry, pollution and heavy labour. Given the state of the world, were we truly a lesser people or civilisation for it? Is it not time that we look to our ancient cultures and their successes, in order to help guide us into the future?

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6 Responses

  1. Double T says:

    Good explanation but what of the pottery wheel? Indigenous Australians sure could’ve made use of that. Was that ever utilised by any of the various nations?

    • koorihistory.com says:

      A good question, but no there is no evidence of earthenware pottery. Pottery isn’t very useful when you’re mobile. It’s heavy and fragile. It’s easier to cut a coolamon from a tree, or carry a water bag made from animal skin, which also keeps the water cooler for longer. Making long lasting waste was not part of our culture.

  2. Great work! A wheel is a circle. Circles are yet a major part of Aboriginal art. Quite correct! One must have, or create paved or flattened, cleared paths to utilise the physical wheel. Having the modern wheel has not been great for our planet; having been used for industrial purposes that have and are damaging our unique planet.

  3. Andrew Lord says:

    Am I right in thinking there are examples of flat wooden disks that were rolled for children to use as targets for spear practice? Because “flat wooden disks” sound a lot like wheels.

  4. nev connor says:

    Not having the wheel raises another question, if you have a trade route covering hundreds or even thousands of kilometres how did these people transport their wares. ?Surely you couldn’t physicality
    carry enough to make these journeys viable. Other cultures had sleds etc, and of course animals that could be suited for domestic transport. Given these circumstances, did these trade routes actually exist, and what were the goods traded ?

    • koorihistory.com says:

      Trade was not on an industrial scale. You were trading items with your neighbours, who in turn traded with theirs. Materials, stories and songs from the coast would find their way to Central Australia and visa versa. Foods were traded but on a limited scale. Bunya pine nuts (larger than a bowling bowl) were taken home when people would return from gatherings hundreds of kilometres away. That and blanks for making axes are as big and heavy as it would get.

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