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29 June 2009
Models of earliest vehicles found in Turkmenistan

Some of the world's first farmers may have sped around in two-wheeled carts pulled by camels and bulls, suggests a new analysis on tiny models of these carts that date to 6,000-5,000 years ago. The cart models, which may have been ritual objects or children's toys, were found at Altyndepe, a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlement in Western Central Asia near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
     'Horsepower' is a common term today, but the ancients had bull-power, followed by camel-power, researcher Lyubov Kircho explained. "I think that the carts pulled by bulls were mostly used in agriculture in the 4th millennium, when the climate was more humid," said Kircho, who is at the Institute for the History of Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences. As time went on, he believes the carts carried heavy goods, such as metals, alabaster and the coveted, semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, over long distances. He added, "Later this kind of long distance transport became impossible (due to the region becoming more arid), and the people began to use the camel in the middle of the third millennium BCE"
     The earliest of the cart models he studied had two wheels with shafts linked to a yoke. Visual representations of the associated harness suggest oxen were the primary draft animals. The carts at this stage were not driven chariot-style, but a person instead could have 'directed the bulls from the side,' which Kircho says would have been 'the easiest way' to control both the cart and its animal pullers.
     Carts dating to the second half of the third millennium BCE gained an additional two wheels. "The most common type had high walls and two shafts, drawn by a single animal - a camel or, less often, a bull," said Kircho. The design of the carts, and the behavior of camels, suggests just a single camel pulled each cart. "It is very difficult to use a pair of camels," he explained. "They are too malicious."
     Prehistoric little boys may have played with vehicles just as they do today, since at least one of the early model carts was found in the grave of a boy who died at age 11. The carts may help to explain apparent connections between the early residents of what is now Turkmenistan and the ancient people of south-eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan.
     The early camel and bull-drawn carts likely led to the emergence of some of the first dedicated 'freeways' for vehicles. David Christian, author of the book 'A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia,' describes a 'huge monumental gateway' that was erected in Altyndepe around 3500 BCE. "It was 15 meters (over 49 feet) wide, and divided into two alleys: the narrower one for pedestrians, and a wider one paved with stones for carts and wheeled traffic," he explained.

Source: Discovery News (26 June 2009)

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