Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/Origin of the Plow and Wheel-Carriage


By E. B. TYLOR, F. R. S.

THOUGH much has been written on that great engine of civilization, the plow, yet the whole line of evidence as to its development from the simplest and earliest agricultural implements seems never to have been put together, so that I venture to lay before the Anthropological Institute the present notes.

Not only the beginning of agriculture, but the invention of the plow itself, is prehistoric. The plow 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 civilized populations. It was with a sense of what the plow 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 plow in legend and religion, perhaps never more poetically than where the Hindoos celebrate Sítá, the spouse of Râma, rising brown and beauteous, crowned with corn-ears, from the plowed field; she is herself the furrow (sítá) 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 practice 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

Fig. 1.—Australian "Katta."

Dobrizhoffer ("Abipones," part ii, chap, xiii) 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 skillfully in root-digging or unearthing animals (J. G. Wood, "Natural History of Man," vol. i, p. 254.) 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 (Buchanan, "Journey through Mysore, etc.," in Pinkerton, vol. viii, p. 707); or where it is mentioned that the Bodo and Dhimál of north-east India, while working the ground with iron bills and hoes, use a four-foot two-pointed wooden staff for a dibble (B. H. Hodgson, "Aborigines of India," p. 181). 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 afterward providing a foot-step (see the Roman spade in Smith's "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities," s. v. "pala"). 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 plow (Rau, "Geschichte des Pflugs," p. 16; Macculloch, "Western Islands," Plate 30); but its action is that of a spade, and it seems out of the line of development of the plow. 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 (Klemm, "Culturwissenschaft," part ii, p. 78). 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 Fig. 2.—"Tima," or Maori Hoe. "hackers," and within a generation there was still to he 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 (Hyltén-Cavallius, "Wärend och Wirdarne," part ii, p. 110; i, p. 43). 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 burned, is described as a bent piece of wood, three fingers wide, fixed to a long handle (see Charlevoix, "Nouvelle France," Letter 23; Lafitau, "Mœurs des Sauvages Ameriquains," vol. ii, p. 76, and Plate 7). (I do not venture to copy the hoe shown in this plate: a mere fancy picture.) In other North American tribes the women hoed with a shoulder-blade of an elk or buffalo, or a piece of the shell of a tortoise fixed to a straight handle (see Loskiel, "Mission of the United Brethren in North America," p. 66; Catlin, "American Indians," vol. i, p. 121). From this stage we come up to implements with metal

Fig. 3.—Swedish "Hack."

blades, such as the Caffre axe, which, by turning the blade in the handle, becomes an implement for hoeing (Lane Fox, "Lectures on Primitive Warfare," No. 2, p. 10). The heavy-bladed Indian hoe (Sanskrit, kudddála), called kodâly in Malabar (Klemm, "Culturwissenschaft," part ii, p. 123), which is shown in 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 plow was a hoe dragged through the ground to form a continuous furrow, is seen from the very structure of early plows, 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. Afterward was introduced the "plow-crook," made in two pieces, the share with the handle and the pole for drawing. The share was afterward shod with a three-cornered iron bill,

Fig. 4.—Indian Hoe.

but the implement was long drawn by hand, till eventually it came to be drawn by mares or cows (Hyltén-Cavallius, part ii, p. 111). 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 plow, which was practically a great hoe, being dragged by a rope by men (see Denon, "Antiquités de l'Egypte," vol. i, PI, 68), Still more perfect is the plowing scene here copied in Fig, 5 (see Rosellini, "Monumenti dell' Egitto," Pl 32, 33; Wilkinson, "Ancient Egyptians," chap, vi). Here the man who follows the plow to break up the clods is working with the ordinary Egyptian hoe, remarkable for its curved wooden blade longer than the handle, and prevented

Fig. 5.

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 plow 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 plowman keeps down and guides the plow. The valley of the Nile, where the lightness and richness of the alluvial soil are favored by the inundations with their fresh deposit of river-mud, was no doubt one of the regions where the higher agriculture earliest arose, and, looking at this sketch of hoeing and plowing, we might be tempted to think that here the transition from the barbaric hoe to the civilized plow is to be seen as it first took place in the world. Egypt may possibly have been the birthplace of the plow; but so many forms of rude plows are to be found represented on coins and sculptures of the ancient world, that it is safer to be content with the general idea that they are enlarged and transformed hoes, without attempting to fix the date, place, and nation to which this inventive transformation belongs. The following figures

Fig. 6. Fig. 7.

are selected from those copied by Ginzrot and Rau. The old Syracusan form (Fig. 6), as likewise some old Etruscan patterns, is remarkable as being so close to the original hoe pattern as not to have the tail or handle. This want is supplied in other rude forms of ancient Italy, of which Fig. 7 shows one. A more angular Roman form is thought to represent the ceremonial plow, with which the wall-line was traced in founding a new city, and Fig. 8 is another archaic form; the projection of the pole behind was for the plowman's foot to press the share down:

"Depresso incipiat jam tum mihi taurus aratro

Ingemere, et sulco attritus splendescere vomer."

(Virgil, "Georgics," I, 45.)

Fig. 9 is Greek, from an early MS. of Hesiod's "Works and Days." Looking at forms of plow as rude as these to be seen at this day in Asia and in backward countries of Europe, one wonders to find that already in classic ages the husbandman had plows of construction far

Fig. 8. Fig. 9.

more nearly approaching that of our best modern implement-makers. Pliny (xviii, c. 48), after describing the simpler kinds of plow, mentions that in Rhætia a plow with the addition of two small wheels had been recently invented, and was used for land already under tillage. He also mentions the coulter (culter). This knife, fixed in front to make the first cut ready for the share to turn the sod, is a great improvement on the primitive plows, where the plowshare has to do the whole work. In Pliny's time, though only forming part of someFig. 10. plows, it was evidently well known. Thus he recognizes the whole construction of the wheel-plow (Fig. 10) as figured by Caylus from an ancient gem. The ordinary modern plow used by the English farmer improves upon this rather in details of construction and material than in essential principle, though a new start in invention is taken by the self-acting plow, which no longer needs the plowman to follow at the plow-tail, and by the steam-plow, which substitutes engine-traction.

The plow, drawn by oxen or horses, and provided with wheels, has taken on itself the accessories of a wheel-carriage. But, when the plow 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 prehistoric antiquity than that of the plow, there seems nothing to object to the ordinary theoretical explanation (see Reuleaux, "Kinematics of Machinery," and others), 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 well-known 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 under 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 wheel-carriage. 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 by a stout bar through their centers, 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. 11); 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 liable 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.

Fig. 11.

The bullock-cart of the Azores (Fig. 12) (from Bullar, "Winter in the Azores," vol. i, p. 121) is a striking relic from the classic world; its wheels are studded with huge iron nails, by way of tire. From old times it was common to make wooden rings, sockets, or bearings underneath the cart for the axle to turn in, much as children's toy-carts are made, as has often been remarked. But a drawing of a modern bullock-cart, taken near Lisbon, represents only a pair of pieces of wood acting as stops, so that the body of the cart can be lifted off its wheels. In looking at these clumsy vehicles, we certainly seem to have primitive forms before us. There is, however, the counter-argument, which ought not to be overlooked, and which in some measure accounts for the lasting on of these rude carts, namely, that for heavy carting across rough ground they are convenient, as well as cheap and easily repaired. 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.

As early as history goes back, the carriage-builder had already begun to make spoked wheels with metal tires, whose well-made nave turned smoothly on the axle. It is needless here to extract from Wilkinson and Layard particulars of the beautifully made Egyptian and Assyrian chariots, nor to go into details of classic, mediæval, and modern carriage-building. As bearing on the origin of the art, it must be noticed that the point where the developments of the plow and carriage

Fig. 12.

join is in the way of attaching the drawing oxen or horses, which was much alike in both. The pole and yoke was no doubt the original mode of draught, not only for the plow and the heavy ox-cart, where it may be often seen still, but also for the chariot and light car (see Schlieben, "Die Pferde des Alterthums," p. 154). The war-chariot, with its yoked steeds, has a remarkable similarity wherever we meet with it in the ancient world, which seems to point to its invention by some one particular nation, though which has not yet been made out, whence it spread to distant countries. How such inventions found their way is well shown in a point of detail, which incidentally shows how far the ancient Britons were from the uncivilized state popularly attributed to them, namely, their use (Mela iii, 6) of scythe-chariots, such as were used in Oriental armies, like that of Darius (Diod. Sic. xvii, 53), or of Antiochus Eupator, when he came into Judea with horsemen and elephants and three hundred scythe-chariots (2 Maccab. xiii, 2). War-chariots were from the first drawn by the pole. The Homeric chariots appear to have been without traces, as where, in the Iliad (vi, 40), Adrastus's scared horses snap the pole amid the tangled tamarisk, and set off straight for the city, evidently having nothing but the pole to hold them. In ancient Egypt, one inner trace was used, but the stress was on the pole. Eventually, in looking at the harness of various nations, we come to the present plan of draught by collar and traces. The change is interesting, as seeming to prove that the earliest use of draught-cattle is that still seen in the yoke of oxen. It has been argued by Pictet ("Origines Indo-Européennes," part ii, p. 94) that the yoke, Sanskrit, yuga that which joins, was first invented for the pair of oxen to draw the plow with, it being likely that they were first put to this heavy work, and afterward used for drawing carts, rather than that the idea of drawing a cart by oxen should have occurred before putting them to plow. This, though not absolutely certain, seems a very reasonable argument; while the yoke and pole, being so much better suited to the ox than to the horse, point to oxen as the earliest draught-beasts. The history of successive changes seems well shown in the Latin jumentum, a beast of burden, from jugumentum yoke-ment, which word keeps up the memory of the original yoke, though other modes of transporting burdens had come in. The Latin jumentum is used for the horse, etc., but not for the ox; and French jument has still further lost the old idea, now meaning merely a mare. One further remark is suggested by the harness of the ancient Egyptian chariot, where the yoke is provided with two saddles coming down on the withers of the horses. As is well known, cavalry was by no means general among the armies of the ancient world. The early Aryans, like the Homeric heroes, were charioteers, not horsemen, nor are there any ancient Egyptian horsemen to be seen on the monuments. On the other hand, the warriors of Palestine are there to be seen on horseback, and horse-soldiers appear on the Assyrian sculptures. In old times, however, the horseman is mostly seen riding a barebacked horse, or with a cloth or pad only. It seems to have been gradually that saddles proper began to be used in Assyria, and among the Greeks and Romans. Looking, now, at the Egyptian yoke-saddles of the chariots, one may suspect that from them were derived not only the harness-saddles in modern use, but also our riding-saddles.—Journal of the Anthropological Institute.