|Photo by Ian McKellar/Flickr|
On a short visit to any North African countries one is bound to run into at least a few donkeys – more so if the trip takes them to any of the poorer rural areas. People continue to use this versatile animal till today for various activities, such as hauling goods or in agriculture or for cheap travel.
A new report published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B last month shows that the link between humans in this region and the ancestors of today’s donkeys goes back more than 5,000 years. It wasn’t formed at the time of powerful kingdoms, but rather by simple, nomadic people who recruited the animals to help them face the rough life of a changing and ever-growing Sahara desert.
“It says those early people were quite innovative, more so than many people today give them credit for,” said senior author Connie Mulligan, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florida and associate director of the UF Genetics Institute. “The domestication of a wild animal was quite an intellectual breakthrough, and we have provided solid evidence that donkey domestication happened first in northern Africa and happened there more than once.”
This newfound bond proved essential for the survival of the first people who started to settle the banks of the Nile river to start a pastoral life.
The ancestors of the domestic donkey were considered vital for collecting water, moving desert households and creating the first land-based trade routes between the ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians, according to study co-author Fiona Marshall, professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Using samples from living animals, skeletons and remains of the African ass held in museums around the world, and isolated donkey bones from African archeological sites, the scientists traced the family tree of today’s domestic donkey.
By sorting through and analyzing the most comprehensive sampling of mitochondrial DNA ever assembled from ancient, historic and living specimens, the researchers showed that the critically endangered African wild ass – which today exists only in small numbers in eastern Africa and some zoos – is the living ancestor of the modern donkey. The Nubian wild ass, which was presumed to have vanished in the late 20th century, is the direct ancestor of the donkey we know today.
The wear and tear of the donkey remains found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs is evidence of the animal’s domestic service, explained Marshall
“These were the first transport animals, the steam engines of their day,” Marshall said. “Today domestic donkeys are often conceived of as animals of poor people, and little is known about their breeding. This is the first study to determine the African wild ass, which includes the Nubian strain, is the ancestor of the domestic donkey. That’s important to know for efforts to preserve the species.”