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K. Kris Hirst

Rates of Domestication: The Donkey

By March 10, 2008

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The more archaeologists learn about the processes of domestication--that is, how animals and plants were changed to fit human needs and vice versa--the more thorny and complex the process seems. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and online on March 10, 2008, suggests that the domestication of the donkey took place over the course of several centuries.

Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis), Israel.
Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis), Israel
Photo Credit: Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

The modern donkey (Equus asinus) was bred from the wild African ass (E. africanus) in northeastern Africa during the predynastic period of Egypt, about 6,000 years ago. Two wild ass subspecies are thought to have had a role in the development of the modern donkey: the Nubian ass (Equus africanus africanus) and the Somali ass (E. africanus somaliensis). Both of these asses are currently on the endangered species list.

The donkey's relationship with the Egyptian civilization is well-documented: for example, murals in the tomb of the New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun illustrate nobles participating in a wild ass hunt. However, the real importance of the donkey relates to its use as a pack animal. Donkeys are desert-adapted and can carry heavy loads through arid lands allowing pastoralists to move their households with their herds. In addition, donkeys proved ideal for the transport of food and trade goods throughout Africa and Asia.

Hired donkeys help tourists explore the Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Hired donkeys help tourists explore the Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Photo Credit: Joanne and Matt

The PNAS study (Rossel et al. 2008) examined 10 donkey skeletons purposefully buried at the predynastic site of Abydos (ca 3000 BC). An analysis of the skeletons, and comparison with modern and ancient animals, revealed that the Abydos donkeys had been used as beasts of burden, evidenced by signs of strain on vertebral bones. In addition, the body morphology of the donkeys was midway between wild asses and modern donkeys, leading researchers to argue that the domestication process was not complete by the end of the predynastic period, but continued as a slow process over periods of several centuries.

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