biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow summerian kids wheel invention


On a beach in Goa I once observed tiny sand crabs forming perfectly spherical balls out of sand and depositing them around the entrance of their burrows. Observing Nature is not only fun, it inspires and it is said that the Chinese invented paper by copying what wasps did and that flying machines were invented, because humans observed birds and insects. But where did the first wheel-makers get their inspiration from? What could have “got the ball rolling”? Are there any animals or plants that roll or tumble?

There is, of course, Volvox globator, the tiny almost invisible, totally spherical green alga, which trundles around in freshwater ponds. But our wheel-inventing ancestors would not have paid much attention to this organism. Cherry stones and other round seeds, of course, could not be overlooked, but would hardly have provided inspiration to construct a wheel. But then there are the tumbleweeds, native to Eurasia: little desert shrubs that break off at the stem to get caught by the wind and tumble around, thereby scattering their seeds. Could they have given humans the idea of making a wheel? Also at home in a desert, namely the Namib, is the famous spider Carparachne aureflava, which instead of clambering down slippery sanddunes on 8 legs, folds its legs into a cart-wheel and then rolls down the hill.

Actually, there are other animal rollers: a small crustacean by the name of Nannosquilla decemspinosa curls up, forms a ball, and rolls back into the water when washed up on the beach. The salamander Hydromantes platycephalus is another animal that can turn itself into a wheel and we must not forget the various pangolin and armadillo and even hedgehog species. But where on Earth was the wheel invented? Most archaeologists point to the Middle East, to Sumeria. Cattle are also thought to have first been domesticated in the Middle East and since cattle and scarabaeid dung beetles occur together, Dr G. Scholtz of Germany surmised it was the dung beetles of the Middle East, which gave humans the idea of copying the rolling motion, which the beetles use to transport their little balls of dung over distances of up to several metres. One might object, if it was dung beetles from whom humans obtained the idea to construct wheels, why did the Central American Maya and Aztecs then have no wheel? Afterall, there are plenty of ball-rolling scarab species in Central America. One explanation frequently offered is that anything round and spherical, like the sun, was too holy to be copied by humans. Another is that Maya and Aztecs never herded cattle and, thus, never formed as close an association with the beetles as the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians did. The Egyptians held the scarab dung beetles in such high esteem that they even saw the holy scarab as the creator and holder of the sun! But ancient texts reveal something more than that: apparently games with marbles (little round objects) were already played in the ancient Middle East.

Marbles are still being played, in fact all over the world, and it is children that play with them. But do children also play with dung beetles and their dung balls? I haven’t seen that, but I have seen children of countries as far apart as Finland and Japan to play with spherical ‘pill bugs’, which they call “pillerinpyörittäjä” and “dango mushi”, respectively. These little animals are mostly pill millipedes (e.g. Glomeris spp.) or woodlice of the genus Armadillidium. They transform into perfect little balls when disturbed and can then be rolled around and played with until they unfold and crawl away. Maybe it was ancient Sumerian kids, playing with pill-bugs that first came up with the idea of copying and using motion by rotation. And I am the first to come up with this weird idea.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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