Contributions to Zoology, 77 (3) - 2008Gerhard Scholtz: Scarab beetles at the interface of wheel invention in nature and culture?

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The exception that proves the rule

If the wheel is as important as we think towards the building up of civilisation; and if, following the assumption of the polycentric invention of wheels, a distinct degree of cultural development in combination with landscape and environmental conditions leads to technical innovations of certain kinds, why then was the wheel not invented and used in pre-Columbian American cultures? The complexity of the culture poses no problem, and the environmental conditions for the use of wheels were there even better than in Stone or Bronze Age Europe. Moreover, terracotta toys with wheels and spindle whorls were used, but surprisingly this knowledge led to neither potter’s wheels, nor cart wheels (Burmeister, 2004; Diamond, 2007). This clearly shows the independence of these achievements. There is no necessity to derive cart or potter’s wheels from spindle whorls or toys. The first thing that came to my mind when I thought about this phenomenon was that perhaps there are no scarab beetles producing balls of dung in America. This is, however, not the case. In Mexico and other areas, there is a number of scarab species that form dung pills (Philips et al., 2004). Furthermore, the ancient Americans were well aware of the arthropod and insect world, as is clear from the catalogue of the great Aztec exhibition (Catalogue 2003) that documents numerous beautiful and sometimes detailed pictures and statues of centipedes, spiders, scorpions and many insects - including a scarab beetle, Canthon humectus Say, 1831 (MacGregor, 1969). Thus, if the observation of scarabs might have been contributed to the invention of the wheel, then why did the ancient American people not get the inspiration from the observation of these animals? One quite trivial answer is that nearly identical observations do not necessarily lead to the same or similar conclusions. More importantly, however, is the absence in Middle and South America of domesticized large hooved animals (see also Diamond, 2007). Consequently, dung beetles were only occasionally observed, and did not obtain the same level of attention compared to the situation in the ancient Middle East.

In conclusion I suggest that the invention of the wheel in human culture was merely a reinvention, copied from nature and from dung beetles in particular. The first thing that came to my mind when I thought about this phenomenon was that perhaps there are no scarab beetles producing balls of dung in America. This is, however, not the case. In Mexico and other areas, there is a number of scarab species that form dung pills (Philips et al., 2004). Furthermore, the ancient Americans were well aware of the arthropod and insect world, as is clear from the catalogue of the great Aztec exhibition (Catalogue 2003) that documents numerous beautiful and sometimes detailed pictures and statues of centipedes, spiders, scorpions and many insects - including a scarab beetle, Canthon humectus Say, 1831 (MacGregor, 1969). Thus, if the observation of scarabs might have been contributed to the invention of the wheel, then why did the ancient American people not get the inspiration from the observation of these animals? One quite trivial answer is that nearly identical observations do not necessarily lead to the same or similar conclusions. More importantly, however, is the absence in Middle and South America of domesticized large hooved animals (see also Diamond, 2007). Consequently, dung beetles were only occasionally observed, and did not obtain the same level of attention compared to the situation in the ancient Middle East.

In conclusion I suggest that the invention of the wheel in human culture was merely a reinvention, copied from nature and from dung beetles in particular.