Journal of the Anthropological Institute

On the Origin of the Plough and Wheel-Carriage

. . . . Not only the beginning of agriculture, but the invention of the plough itself, are pre-historic. The plough was known to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, and the very existence of these nations points to previous thousands of years of agricultural life, which alone could have produced such dense, settled, and civilised populations. It was with a sense of what the plough had done for them, that the old Egyptians ascribed its invention to Osiris, and the Vedic bards said the Açvins taught its use to Manu, the first man. Many nations have glorified the plough in legend and religion, perhaps never more poetically than where the Hindus celebrate Sîtâ, the spouse of Râma, rising brown and beauteous, crowned with corn-ears, from the ploughed field; she is herself the furrow (sîtâ) personified. Between man’s first rude husbandry, and this advanced state of tillage, lies the long interval which must be filled in by other than historical evidence. What has first to be looked for is hardly the actual invention of planting, which might seem obvious even to rude tribes who never practise it. Every savage is a practical botanist skilled in the localities and seasons of all useful plants, so that he can scarcely be ignorant that seeds or roots, if put into proper places in the ground, will grow. When low tribes are found not tilling the soil but living on wild food, as apparently all mankind once did, the reason of the absence of agriculture would seem to be not mere ignorance, but insecurity, roving life, unsuitable climate, want of proper plants, and in regions where wild fruits are plentiful, sheer idleness and carelessness. On looking into the condition of any known savage tribes, Australians, Andamaners, Botocudos, Fuegians, Esquimaux, there is always one or more of these reasons to account for want of tillage. The turning-point in the history of agriculture seems to be not the first thought of planting, but the practical beginning by a tribe settled in one spot to assist nature by planting a patch of ground round their huts. Not even a new implement is needed. Wandering tribes already carry a stick for digging roots and unearthing burrowing animals, such as the katta of the Australians, with its point hardened in the fire (Fig. 1), or the double-ended stick which Dobrizhoffer mentions as carried by the Abipone women to dig up eatable roots, knock down fruits or dry branches for fuel, and even, if need were, break an enemy’s head with. The stick which dug up wild roots passes to the kindred use of planting, and may be reckoned as the primitive agricultural implement. It is interesting to notice how the Hottentots in their husbandry break up the ground with the same stone-weighted stick they use so skilfully in root-digging or unearthing animals. The simple pointed stake is often mentioned as the implement of barbaric husbandry, as when the Kurubars of South India are described as with a sharp stick digging up spots of ground in the skirts of the forest, and sowing them with ragy; or where it is mentioned that the Bodo and Dhimal of North-East India, while working the ground with iron bills and hoes, use a 4-ft. two-pointed wooden staff for a dibble. The spade, which is hardly to be reckoned among primitive agricultural implements, may be considered as improved from the digging-stick by giving it a flat paddle-like end, or arming it with a broad pointed metal blade, and afterwards providing a foot-step. In the Hebrides is to be seen a curious implement called caschrom, a kind of heavy bent spade with an iron-shod point, which has been set down as a sort of original plough; but its action is that of a spade, and it seems out of the line of development of the plough. To trace this, we have to pass from the digging-stick to the hoe.

All implements of the nature of hoes seem derived from the pick or axe. Thus the New Caledonians are said to use their Wooden picks both as a weapon and for tilling the ground. The tima or Maori hoe (Fig. 2), from R. Taylor’s, "New Zealand and its Inhabitants," p. 423, is a remarkable curved wooden implement in one piece. It is curious that of all this class of agricultural implements, the rudest should make its appearance in Europe. Tradition in South Sweden points to waste pieces of once tilled land in the forests and wilds, as having been the fields of the old "hackers," and within a generation there was still to be seen in use on forest farms the "hack" itself (Fig. 3), made of a stake of spruce-fir, with at the lower end a stout projecting branch cut short and pointed. Even among native tribes of America a more artificial hoe than this was found in use. Thus the hoe used by the North American women in preparing the soil for planting maize after the old stalks had been burnt is described as a bent piece of wood, three fingers wide, fixed to a long handle. In other North American tribes, the women hoed with a shoulderblade of an elk or buffalo, or a piece of the shell of a tortoise fixed to a straight handle. From this stage we come up to implements with metal blades, such as the Kafir axe, which by turning the blade in the handle becomes an implement for hoeing. The heavy-bladed Indian hoe (Sanskrit kuddâla) called kodâly in Malabar, which is shown here (Fig. 4), is one example of the iron-bladed hoe, of clumsy and ancient type. The modern varieties of the hoe need no detailed description here.

That the primitive plough was a hoe dragged through the ground to form a continuous furrow, is seen from the very structure of early ploughs, and was accepted as obvious by Ginzrot ("Wagen und Fahrwerke der Griechen und Römer," vol. i, and, Klemm, "Culturwissenschaft," part ii, p. 78). The evidence of the transitions through which agricultural implements have passed in Sweden during the last ten centuries or so, which was unknown to these writers, is strongly confirmatory of the same view. It appears that the fir-tree hack (Fig. 3) was followed by a heavier wooden implement of similar shape, which was dragged by hand, making small furrows; this "furrow-crook" is still used for sowing. Afterwards was introduced the "plough-crook," made in two pieces, the share with the handle, and the pole for drawing. The share was afterwards shod with a three-cornered iron bill, but the implement was long drawn by hand, till eventually it came to be drawn by mares or cows. Thus in comparatively

modern times a transformation took place in Sweden remarkably resembling that of which we have circumstantial evidence as having happened in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian monuments show a plough, which was practically a great hoe, being dragged by a rope by men. Still more perfect is the ploughing scene here copied in Fig. 5. Here the man who follows the plough to break up the clods is Working with the ordinary Egyptian hoe, remarkable for its curved wooden blade longer than the handle, and prevented from coming abroad by the cord attaching the blade to the handle half-way down. This peculiar implement, with its cord to hold it together, reappears on a larger scale in the plough itself, where the straight stick is lengthened to form the pole by which the oxen draw it, and a pair of handles are added by which the ploughman keeps down and guides the plough. . . . .

The plough, drawn by oxen or horses, and provided with wheels, has taken on itself the accessories of a wheel-carriage. But when the plough is traced back to its earliest form of a hoe dragged by men, its nature has little in common with that of the vehicle. Though the origin of the wheel-carriage is even more totally lost in pre-historic antiquity than that of the plough, there seems nothing to object to the ordinary theoretical explanation that the first vehicle was a sledge dragged along the ground, that when heavy masses had to be moved, rollers were put under the sledge, and that these rollers passed into wheels forming part of the carriage itself. The steps of such a transition, with one notable exception which will be noticed, are to be actually found. The sledge was known in ancient Egypt (see the well-known painting from El Bersheh of a colossal statue being dragged by men with ropes on a sledge along a greased way, Wilkinson, "Ancient Egyptians," vol. iii). On mountain-roads, as in Switzerland, as well as on the snow in winter, the sledge remains an important practical vehicle. The use of rollers under the sledge was also familiar to the ancients (see the equally wellknown Assyrian sculpture of the moving of the winged bull, in Layard’s "Nineveh and Babylon," p. 110). If now the middle part of the trunk of a tree used as a roller were cut down to a mere axle, the two ends remaining as solid drums, and stops were fixed reader the sledge to prevent the axle from running away, the result would be the rudest imaginable cart. I am not aware that this can be traced anywhere in actual existence, either in ancient or modern times; if found, it would be of much interest as vouching for this particular stage of invention of the wheelcarriage. But the stage which would be theoretically the next improvement, is to be traced in practical use; this is to saw two broad drums off a tree-trunk, and connect them to a stout bar through their centres, pinned fast, so that the whole turns as a single roller. The solid drum-wheel was used in the farm-carts of classic times (see the article "Plaustrum," by Yates, in Smith’s "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities"). The ox-wagon here shown is taken from the Antonine column (Fig. 6); it appears to have solid wheels, and the square end of the axle proves that it and its drum-wheels turned round together in one. A further improvement was to make the wheel with several pieces nailed together, which would be less likely to split. The ancient Roman farm-carts were mostly made with such wheels, as are their successors which are used to this day with wonderfully little change, as in Greece and Portugal. . . . . Considering that the railway-carriage builder gives up the coach-wheel principle, and returns to the primitive construction of the pair of wheels fixed to the axle turning in bearings, we see that our ordinary carriage-wheels turning independently on their axles are best suited to comparatively narrow wheels, and to smooth ground or made roads. Here they give greater lightness and speed, and especially have the advantage of easily changing direction and turning, which in the old block-wheel cart can only be done by gradually slewing round in a wide circuit. . . . .—E. B. TYLOR n/a, , 10:74–81.

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Journal of the Anthropological Institute

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Journal of the Anthropological Institute

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Journal of the Anthropological Institute in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 400–404. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 400–404. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , Journal of the Anthropological Institute. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.400–404. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from