Why the Inca Didn’t Use Wheels

Jennifer R. Povey
4 min readNov 26, 2020
Photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

The Inca was the culmination of thousands of years of development. It conquered huge parts of western south America and held onto them from 1438 to 1533. The last vestiges were conquered by the Spanish in 1572.

Much like the Romans, the Inca demanded their subjects worship the Emperor and acknowledge the primacy of their gods.

Much like the Romans they had an incredible network of roads.

But they’re also famous for one other thing:

They didn’t have the wheel.

Did the Inca Really Not Have the Wheel?

We consider the wheel a basic symbol of civilization. The idea of a great empire not having it tends to hit our brains as proof that they are inferior and primitive.

But then we found something interesting. In the late 19th century we dicscovered…Inca wheels. On toys.

The Inca absolutely did have the wheel. They just didn’t use the wheel. They would have known how to build wheeled carts.

They just…didn’t.

So, why not? The answer is actually remarkably obvious.

Mountain Roads

Let’s take a quick trip a bit further north into the largest “roadless” wilderness in the contiguous United States: The High Sierras.

Mono Pass — Photo by Author

This is one of two passes called Mono Pass in the area around Yosemite. It forms part of an ancient indigenous (Paiute and Ahwahneechee) trade route that crossed the mountains.

Yes.

This might not be what we consider a road today, but this is a road.

This road includes sections which are stepped. It has tight switchbacks. Right at the top here, above the treeline and indeed above the vegetation line, is the flattest bit!

Note the means of transportation we’re using here.

Yup.

This is a pre-Columbian road on which the most efficient form of transportation is a mule.

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Jennifer R. Povey

I write about fantasy, science fiction and horror, LGBT issues, travel, and social issues.