The potter’s wheel made its appearance in Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium and was adopted in many parts of Eurasia. Around 3700 bce, cattle herders who lived on the plains north of the Caucasus Mountains began burying their leaders with two-wheeled carts or four-wheeled wagons drawn by oxen, signs of wealth and power rather than utilitarian vehicles. Their wheels, made of three heavy planks encircled by leather straps with big copper nails, were fi rmly attached to their axles, which turned with them. Such vehicles became common in Mesopotamia and Syria by 3000 bce and in the Indus Valley 500 years later. They were also known in northern Europe by 3000 bce and in Egypt after 1650 bce. However, they were very heavy and bogged down in soft soils and could not be used on rocky terrain. Long after the wheel was known, it was much easier to transport goods over long distances in caravans of donkeys. The peoples of the Americas did not use wheeled vehicles at all because they had no domesticated animals large enough to pull them.
One of the most important technologies we have inherited from the ancient civilizations is writing, a means of storing and transmitting information through space and time by inscribing symbols to represent things, ideas, and sounds. Many different writing systems have appeared in the world. Those of Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica were independently invented. Others, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs and our own alphabet, were inspired by the writings of neighboring societies.
The Sumerians created the first writing system, called cuneiform , meaning “wedge shaped.” Around 8000 bce, people in and near Mesopotamia began using small clay tokens to represent such things as sheep, bushels of grain, or jars of oil. Meanwhile, others were drawing designs on pottery. Between 3300 and 3200 bce, Sumerian scribes began depicting not only people and things but also abstract ideas. They used the rebus principle, like drawing a picture of a bee and a leaf to indicate the word belief. They inscribed these symbols with a stick with a wedge-shaped end on small tablets of wet clay. Once dried in the sun, these tablets lasted for thousands of years.
For the first 500 years after cuneiform was developed, it was used only to make lists, keep track of donations to temples, and the like; 90 percent of the tablets found are bookkeeping and administrative documents. Only later did scribes begin writing histories, laws, legends, and other forms of literature. To do so, they needed 500 to 600 different signs, requiring many years to learn. Only a very few people had the leisure to learn this esoteric skill or the wealth to send their children to school. Writing became a way to distinguish the literate elite from the rest of the population.