Domestication of the donkey

Mar 10, 2008

An international group of researchers has found evidence for the earliest transport use of the donkey and the early phases of donkey domestication, suggesting the process of domestication may have been slower and less linear than previously thought.

Based on a study of 10 donkey skeletons from three graves dedicated to donkeys in the funerary complex of one of the first Pharaoh's at Abydos, Egypt, the team, led by Fiona Marshall, Ph.D., professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Stine Rossel of the University of Copenhagen, found that donkeys around 5,000 years ago were in an early phase of domestication. They looked like wild animals but displayed joint wear that showed that they were used as domestic animals.

“Genetic research has suggested African origins for the donkey,” said Marshall. “But coming up with an exact time and location for domestication is difficult because signs of early domestication can be hard to see. Our findings show that traces of human management can indicate domestication before skeletal or even genetic changes."

The previously unpublished research was presented in “Domestication of the Donkey: New Data on Timing, Process and Indicators” in the March 10 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Domestication of the donkey from the African wild ass was a pivotal point in human history. It transformed ancient transport systems in Africa and Asia and the organization of early cities and pastoral societies.

The research team examined the 5,000-year-old Abydos skeletons along with 53 modern donkey and African wild ass skeletons. Analysis showed that the Abydos metacarpals were similar in overall proportions to those of wild ass, but individual measurements varied. Mid-shaft breadths resembled wild ass, but mid-shaft depths and distal breadths were intermediate between wild ass and domestic donkey.

Despite this, all the Abydos skeletons exhibited a range of wear and other pathologies on their bones consistent with load carrying. Morphological similarities to wild ass show that despite their use as beasts of burden, donkeys were still undergoing considerable phenotypic change during the early dynastic period in Egypt. This pattern is consistent with recent studies of other domestic animals that suggest that the process of domestication is slower and more complicated than had been previously thought.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Explore further: More than two dozen articles provide insights on mummies

Related Stories

A boring life -- the Asiatic wild ass in the Mongolian Gobi

May 03, 2011

Wild asses are descendants of the original ancestors of the horse and the donkey. Unfortunately most species of wild ass are now in danger of extinction, largely as a direct result of human activities such as hunting and ...

Baby zebra is latest success in research partnership

Jul 30, 2014

The recent birth of a female Grevy's zebra foal at the Saint Louis Zoo marks another milestone in a long-running Washington University in St. Louis research partnership that is making significant contributions ...

Recommended for you

More than two dozen articles provide insights on mummies

May 22, 2015

In a special issue, The Anatomical Record ventures into the world of human mummified remains. In 26 articles, the anatomy of mummies is exquisitely detailed through cutting edge examination, while they are put in historical, archeo ...

The Bronze Age Egtved Girl was not from Denmark

May 21, 2015

The Bronze Age Egtved Girl came from far away, as revealed by strontium isotope analyses of the girl's teeth. The analyses show that she was born and raised outside Denmark's current borders, and strontium ...

Oldest-known stone tools pre-date Homo

May 20, 2015

Scientists working in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya have found stone tools dating back 3.3 million years, long before the advent of modern humans, and by far the oldest such artifacts yet discovered. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.