New Worlds: One If by Land

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Ever since our pre-pre-pre-pre-prehistoric ancestors left the primordial sea to slither around on dry land, the vast majority of our transportation has been been earth-bound. Naturally, in talking about different methods by which we travel, I’m going to begin with the terrestrial.

Starting with the one we’re most prone to overlooking: our own two feet.

It’s easy to forget this in our highly sedentary society, but human beings are really good at walking. We’re decent runners, too, but it’s walking where we truly excel. I’ve seen it claimed, though I don’t have the citations to back it up, that over sufficiently long distances we outpace horses. Bipedal locomotion is very energy-efficient — more so than dragging four legs around. People can and do travel the entire length of North and South America on foot. It takes them a very long time, but they get there in the end.

But as soon as we got the chance, we domesticated animals and made them do some of the work instead. We may be fantastic at endurance, but across shorter distances we’re not that fast, and we’re also not great when it comes to carrying burdens — quadrupedal structure is much better in that regard. Plus, while riding does still require effort from the rider, it’s nowhere near as tiring as slogging the whole way on your own, and being on top of an animal helps keep you out of the mud and away from things like snakes.

Only a few animals have really been domesticated for riding, though. Horses and their nearest equine relatives, donkeys and mules; camels; elephants; more rarely, reindeer, or bovines like cows, water buffalo, and yaks. (While people do occasionally ride ostriches or zebras for novelty, it’s never become a common thing. Zebras panic too easily, and like to bite.) A slightly wider range are used either as pack or draft animals — carrying or pulling burdens — including llamas, dogs, goats, and oxen. Some are obviously more adapted to certain climates than others; camels are good in the desert, and llamas will happily go up and down staircase-style roads that make horses give you the side-eye.

Draft animals bring us to the next innovation, which was vehicles. The earliest one we know of is from ancient Sumer, which makes sense; land vehicles generally benefit from having roads, which means having enough of an urban civilization to build such things. Before we had cars and railroads, we had carts, wagons, carriages of all kinds, sledges and sleighs in the snow — and also things like rickshaws, palanquins, and sedan chairs, where the motive power is provided by one or more humans instead of draft animals.

These were the height of luxury, historically speaking. Riding may be less tiring than walking the whole way yourself, but it still requires effort, not to mention leaves you exposed to the elements. Vehicles provide shelter and require virtually no effort from the passenger. But they do require you to pay for either animals or people to pull you around, which means that traveling this way has most often been for the rich.

But I said last week that we modern people have it easy, compared to our ancestors. Carriages and the like may have been luxurious by their standards, but not by ours. Before the twentieth century, air conditioning meant opening a window and hoping for a breeze (while putting up with road dust); heating meant huddling under a blanket, maybe with a container of coals to provide extra warmth. For shock absorption, you had chains or leather straps that let the body of the vehicle swing, and cushions to soften any jolts.

And the roads! We’ve known about asphalt for millennia, but only started using it widely to pave roads in the 1920s. Before that, you were looking at large, flat stones for paving, or gravel, or plain old dirt. In wet seasons these roads could turn to quagmires of mud; in dry seasons they kicked up choking amounts of dust; they became rutted and potholed and often didn’t receive the regular maintenance necessary to keep your journey anything like smooth. So even traveling in the swankest carriage available, you would suffer constant bouncing . . . always supposing you didn’t break a wheel or an axle, or get stuck in the mud or snow.

I have to pause here to give an unexpected shout-out to wheelbarrows. Not the kind you’re probably thinking of, with a wheel at the front; those are European wheelbarrows, and a few years ago I learned that they suck compared to the Chinese kind. Those have their wheel in the middle rather than the front, with a platform built around it to carry the burden — which means that much more of the weight is carried by the wheel, instead of whoever’s pushing or pulling.

The Chinese historically used them (and for all I know, still do) not only to transport goods across long distances, but also people — up to six passengers, sometimes perched atop the rest of the load. The advantage of wheelbarrow transport is that it doesn’t need a good road like other vehicles do. Instead of two tracks, one for each wheel or set of wheels, it can make do with one — or, depending on the terrain, none. Wheelbarrows are thus able to go where carts and the like can’t, which makes them exceedingly useful in rural areas where road construction and upkeep is unlikely.

In fact, the Chinese did one other thing with wheelbarrows, which they also did with carriages: they put sails on them. Wind isn’t only good for motive power at sea; you can also use it on land. The practice has never caught on that widely, but settlers in the United States occasionally used them on the Great Plains (an ideal landscape for it), and in South America they occasionally used them to move railcars.

But sails really come into their own when you get out onto the water. For that, come back next week, when we talk about traveling by river, lake, and sea.

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New Worlds: One If by Land — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: One If by Land - Swan Tower

  2. There’s also a nineteenth-century innovation that could have been much earlier but for diversion of high-tensile-strength iron to military uses: The iron horse. Railroads. After all, SF Bay Area owes its population to the Transcontinental Railroad… because the port geography is nowhere near as good (improved or otherwise) as LA or Seattle.

    • There’s always stuff in these essays that gets squeezed out for lack of space, and motor vehicles wound up on the chopping block here. But in many instances that just means they get their own essay later. 😛

    • The iron horse depends on efficient steam engines, which I doubt could have been easily invented any earlier than they were. Actual horses can be given an easier time of pulling things if pulling carts on rails, a la horsecars. I dunno how much earlier those could have been though; you first need the techniques for making lots of iron or steel cheaply, which also involves fossil fuel dependence for smelting (charcoal works but you have a sharp “trees or steel” tradeoff; people were burning coal for heat and smelting centuries before the Heat Engine revolution of the 1800s.)

    • Oh, thank you! That’s the article I read which put Chinese wheelbarrows on my radar, but it was so many years ago I had no idea where to find the link. I’ll include it when I make the ebook of this year’s essays.