I read once that the Asian wok evolved from the needs of nomadic peoples for a cooking utensil that could do everything from sauteing to deep frying and boiling. One weakness of the wok is that it isn’t particularly well suited to baking, but if you don’t have an oven (not very common in nomadic tents and yurts), who cares?
Several days into my new Lodge cast iron pan, I am very impressed. I have used it almost exclusively for all my cooking; frying eggs in the morning, searing steaks and finishing them in the oven, baking a lamb rack with potatoes. A very versatile tool that is thick enough to resist warping from rough handling, and moving easily from one cooking medium to another because of its lack of wood, plastic, and other metal parts. A Western wok as it were.
My only historic reference to the cast iron pan is from watching Westerns; the camp cook using one to prepare everything from chili to bread, in anticipation of the cowboys returning from their day’s work herding cattle. Once again the nomadic association is interesting; a versatile all-in-one tool that can even be used as a weapon to fend off drunks and dingos.
The Chinese invented cast iron in the 4th Century BCE, but it wasn’t used in cookware in the West until the 18th century. Cast iron was a natural choice because it could go directly on an open flame in a hearth, years before the invention of the indoor stove and oven. Cast iron cookware remained very popular into the mid-20th century, eventually being displaced by teflon-covered utensils. It is going through a renaissance today, largely I suspect, for many of the reasons I have moved in its direction: versatility, safety, cost, and cooking performance. A good article on cast-iron cookware is available here.