Why Not to Use the Wheel? Evidence from the Cambao Wagon Road in the Colombian Andes

Xavier Duran, Universidad de los Andes

The use of wheel transport for long distance trade (wheel henceforth) is an important technological advance of antiquity. However, even by 19th century South America had not adopted the wheel widely. We examine the determinants of wheel adoption focusing on the case of the first wagon road built in the Andes, the Cambao road completed in 1885. A threshold technology adoption model calibrated using human and mule energy transport cost suggests that for pre-Columbian populations facing rugged topography short steep routes were efficient. Since use of the wheel requires long zigzagging gentle routes, short and steep routes generated path dependence and inhibited for centuries later adoption of the wheel. Only until the 1860s, it became efficient to adopt the wheel in the Andes. Overlooked archival sources document that technological uncertainty and institutional failure account for the final two decades delay.

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 Presented in Session 248. Technology and Institutions: New Histories