Little deuce coupe, a prehistory


Wheels probably started being used by copper miners in southeastern Europe, in the Carpathians, in the 4th millennium BC. The early wheels were wheelsets, with the wheel fixed solidly to an axle, and the axle rotating. For miners, any alternative to carrying loads of ore on their backs must have been welcome. Miners can smooth a path for their carts, so the problem of moving wheels on uneven terrain is reduced.

Several centuries later, somewhere between the Carpathians and the steppe country north of the Black Sea, another kind of wheel was developed, with the wheel rotating freely around a fixed axle. The new wheel was perfectly suited to a new way of life that developed on the steppes, where nomads followed herds of livestock. Horses might have been the flashiest part of the new lifestyle, but oxcarts, carrying family belongings from one grazing site to another, may have been just as important.

Judging by their reconstructed vocabulary, speakers of Proto-Indo-European – the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and Northern India – were among those adopting the new technology.


(Actually, looking at the reconstructions, it looks like the adoption of the wheel may have come after Proto-Anatolian – ancestor to Hittite – had branched off from other Indo-European languages.)

Some cultures got into wheels more than others. Sub-Saharan African societies, even including cattle nomads, never adopted the wheel. In the Middle East, wheeled vehicles gave way pack camels sometime between Roman times and the Islamic period. As a result, Islamic states didn’t have to put as much effort into road building as earlier states, and the narrow streets of Islamic cities were made for camels, not carts, to traverse. Wheeled transportation was limited in Japan. And in the New World, wheels are known only from children’s toys.


Things were different in Europe and its cultural offshoots, where wheeled vehicles have exercised a hold on the imagination – especially the male imagination – right up to the present. This is from Richard Bulliet’s recent book, The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions (p. 33):

Not only is the world racing fraternity composed almost entirely of men, but it has historically recruited very few drivers from East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. …[T]he five-thousand-year history of wheels in Indo-European societies – specifically in Europe, including its former colonies, and North America – testifies to an affinity between vehicle driving and male identity in cultures that descend from the Proto-Indo-European linguistic tradition. Since the earliest days of wagon nomads and chariots, through the carriage revolution of the sixteenth century, and down to the automobile era, men brought up in European (and Euro-American) societies have repeatedly linked their manhood to their vehicles.

And here are the Beach Boys, carrying on the tradition in Little Deuce Coupe.

Uruk and the empires before history

The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue:

The sheep and the horses

3591-3286 BCE

By today’s date, the speakers of Proto-Indo-European are probably well-ensconced in their homeland, either Anatolia/the Caucasus/Northern Iran or (more likely according to the DNA evidence) the steppes north of the Black Sea. Nobody was writing the language down, but scholars have reconstructed a lot of it based on its daughter languages, which include English, Irish, Latin, Greek, Polish, Sanskrit, and Hittite, among many others. In 1868, August Schleicher wrote a little tale in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. Here’s his version

Avis akvāsas ka

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.

And the English translation

The Sheep and the Horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

And here’s a sound file of the tale, based on more than a century’s linguistic work post-Schleicher, read aloud by linguist Andrew Bird

Here’s a transcription of this version

 H2óu̯is h1éḱu̯ōs-kwe

h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.

Horse clans

3916-3592 BCE

The Botai culture (3700 – 3100 BCE), in present-day Kazakhstan, represents an uncommon mode of subsistence: equestrian hunting. The fact that the Botai folk have domesticated horses makes them different from most hunters and gatherers, while the fact that they depend heavily on hunting makes them different from later herders in the region.

The most famous equestrian hunters are the American Plains Indians of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. These were a varied assortment of tribes, with origins among more settled Indian groups, who took up riding after Spaniards reintroduced the horse (which had gone extinct in North America, along with other megafauna, twelve thousand years earlier). Plains Indians depended on hunting bison for most of their diet. The Botai folk were not hunting bison of course, but wild horses. Horses supplied the overwhelming part of their diet; 90% of animal bones in their settlements come from horses. There was an argument for a while about whether the Botai folk really had domesticated horses. However, this has been settled by the discovery of pottery containing residues of mare’s milk; obviously no one is arguing that they were milking wild horses. So unlike American Indians, Botai folk milked their horses.  It is also likely that they were riding horses and using them for traction. There is evidence for bit wear on the teeth of some of their horses, and it’s hard to see how they could have gotten whole wild horse carcasses back home (as they did) without having tame horses to pull the carcasses, probably on sledges.

The fact that the Botai folk had horse milk in their diet, along with lots of horse meat, is interesting. Horse milk is sweet (6.3% lactose vs. 1.3% fat, close to human milk), sweeter than cow’s milk (4.6% lactose vs. 3.4% fat). Any Botai individual who carried the lactase persistence allele, which allows carriers to digest lactose (milk sugar) past infancy and into adulthood, would presumably have had a strong fitness advantage. The ability to digest lactose might have been particularly important for kids making the transition from mother’s milk to horse meat. However, it took a long time – millennia – for the lactase gene to get really frequent.

Horses and horse riding and horse traction play an enormous role in Eurasian history. They are probably a major factor in the expansion of speakers of Indo-European languages. The Botai folk were almost certainly not the original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers – the PIE vocabulary doesn’t fit – but they or people like them might have played some role in Indo-European origins, even if their language didn’t prevail.

In the beginning …

… specifically 4004 BCE, God created the heavens and the earth. At least that’s the conclusion of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1650. Ussher’s method – counting backward from the genealogies of Biblical characters – was quite precise. Others using the same method got very similar dates. Newton, for example, calculated 4000 BCE for Genesis 1:1. Kepler came up with 3992 BCE. And according to the current Jewish calendar, Anno Mundi (AM) 1 falls on 3761 BCE, 6 October, at sunset. However precision is not the same as accuracy. Ussher’s figure missed the correct date for the Big Bang by a factor of 2.4 million.

Traditional Indian thinkers got closer. According to the Law of Manu, different orders of beings have different natural time scales. For humans, the natural scale is given by the alternation between day and night. For the ancestors, one ancestral day-and-night equals one human month. For the gods, one divine day-and-night equals one human year. For Brahma, one Brahmanical day-and-night is a pair of kalpas, where a kalpa equals 1000 Great Ages (mahayugas) of the gods. A Great Age of the gods equals 12,000 divine years, which also equals four human Ages (of different lengths). A divine year equals 360 human years. So a kalpa comes to 4.32 billion (human) years,* very close to the true age of the Earth. A pair of kalpas misses the date for the Big Bang by a factor of just 1.6.

Further calculations show that a Great Age lasts 4.32 million years. We’re now most of the way through the present Great Age. At the beginning of a Great Age, Righteousness and Truth walk on four legs, but they have progressively fewer legs to stand on as the Great Age rolls along and everything goes to pot. So maybe the message is that the whole bipedalism thing hasn’t been such a great idea; we’ve got another 426,884 years (by one reckoning) of things going downhill until the next Great Age begins, and we return to quadrupedal righteousness.

Nonetheless, in honor of Ussher, from here on dates will be given as BCE / CE, rather than “years ago.”

* Or 30.24 billion dog years.

Beer, a toast

6,641-6,278 years ago

About 10 million years ago, a single point mutation occurred among our ancestors that increased their ability to metabolize alcohol 20-fold. Very recent finds suggest that beer making was going on among the Natufians (in modern Israel) even before the origin of agriculture. We tweeted about the first known alcoholic beverage, from China, on September 11. And for today’s date on Logarithmic History, we have more evidence for beer brewing, from Iran, based on chemical tests of ancient pottery jars. You can find a popular discussion of beer archeology here.

People in traditional societies are not just concerned with subsistence – with earning their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. They often put a lot of work into non-subsistence production that raises their prestige. There’s a big literature in anthropology on “costly signaling” (related to conspicuous consumption; for example) concerned with this phenomenon. Archeologist Brian Hayden proposes that the origin of agriculture itself was motivated not so much by subsistence pressures, as by the desire to produce luxury foods for feasts. The potential for alcohol production in particular might have spurred the early domestication of grains. Alcohol production has probably gone on long enough for populations with a long tradition of farming to acquire some genetic adaptations to the availability of alcohol.

In that convivial spirit, moving from the distant past to the far future – even to the end of the Universe – here is a toast to the brewmasters, from the last novel by science fiction writer Jack Vance:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181

History became legend, legend became myth, 2 (Noah’s flood)

7.5-7.0 thousand years ago

We’ve already seen that the whole Mediterranean basin once dried out for hundreds of thousands of years, only to be flooded in the course of just a few years once its connection with the Atlantic was restored. This happened 5.3 million years ago. Strikingly, recent findings suggest that there may have been human ancestors in the area to watch it happen. There’s been a lot of interest (and some skepticism) about a report of biped footprints from Crete from this time interval. This would fit with some recent claims that very early human ancestors (just after the chimp/human split) might have lived in Europe. But all this is still very much up in the air, and in any case, if any human ancestors were around in the neighborhood, and survived the flood, they hadn’t reached the stage of passing on the story to the kids.

But a similar story, on a smaller scale, may have happened within the possible limits of human remembrance. At the end of the last Ice Age the Black Sea was a freshwater lake, cut off from the Mediterranean. The water level was lower in Black Sea than in Mediterranean, so this was a potentially unstable situation. According to some evidence, around 7,500 years ago the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus, and water poured in, raising sea levels at the rate of up to six inches a day, until the area of the Black Sea expanded by more than 50%. (However some researchers think the flooding was less dramatic.)

Of course just about any reader knows the famous story of Noah and the Flood. Many readers will also know that Noah’s story seems to be connected with an earlier Babylonian flood story. This is recounted, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh travels north from his hometown of Uruk seeking Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that drowned most of his neighbors. (Utnapishtim also tells Gilgamesh about a plant that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh secures the plant. Then a snake eats it. D’oh!)

It’s natural to speculate that the Black Sea flood inspired the Gilgamesh story. But flood stories are found through much of the world, so the story may be an amalgam. Another ingredient may be the story of Ziusudra, maybe a real early Sumerian king from about 2900 BCE who is recorded as surviving a major flood and getting washed into the Persian Gulf.