Skip to comments.Domestication Event: Why The Donkey And Not The Zebra?
Posted on 10/23/2006 12:00:01 PM PDT by blam
Domestication event: Why the donkey and not the zebra?
By Eric Hand
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS - A few years ago, Egyptologists found a new Pharaonic burial site more than 5,000 years old. They opened up a tomb.
"They're expecting to find nobles, the highest courtiers," said Washington University archaeologist Fiona Marshall. "And what do they find? Ten donkey skeletons."
"The ancient Egyptian burial shows how highly valued (donkeys) were for the world's first nation state. After the horse came, they became lower status. Of course, they're the butt of jokes and all the rest of it. That has to do with the name mostly."
Hee haw. Marshall wants to know how the donkey was domesticated from the Somali wild ass. By traveling around the world, searching for bones in London museums and African deserts, she hopes to pinpoint the time and place of this event, which Marshall says was as revolutionary as the invention of the steam engine.
She also hopes to understand why the ass was domesticated and not, say, the zebra.
Animal domestication events are rare in human history. Of 148 land-dwelling mammals that weigh more than 100 pounds, only 14 were domesticated. These animals tend to have certain characteristics, like a strong hierarchy. That allows humans to slip in atop the order. Calm, social and non-territorial animals also made good candidates.
Yet wild asses - stubborn, territorial, flighty - have none of these characteristics. "That is the conundrum. By all the rules of domestication, they're not at all suitable," Marshall said.
Marshall is working with St. Louis Zoo researcher Cheryl Asa to understand how asses breed and behave in captivity, which could provide clues as to how they were turned into donkeys.
The St. Louis Zoo has five wild asses. Only a few dozen are kept in North American zoos, and only a few thousand cling to war-torn lands in Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, where the zoo is funding conservation work.
While the vicious and flighty zebra has resisted domestication even by modern biologists, the ass was somehow domesticated in these lands at least 6,000 years ago, according to Marshall.
Pinpointing domestication events is a challenge. Marshall looks for subtle things to distinguish donkey and ass bones, like arthritis in a shoulder bone - evidence of a pack-laden animal.
The events are important to archaeologists because they have huge historical implications. Domesticated plants and animals let farmers stockpile food in a more predictable way, said Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History.
"Domestication around the world has certainly been an incredible lever for human change," she said.
In one theory, the large number of domesticated plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Near East spread easily across the east-west axis of Eurasia. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book "Guns, Germs and Steel," Jared Diamond credits that for the eventual dominance of European powers.
Marshall said, "It helps us understand the trajectory that's been taken to the modern world. The places that are wealthy and powerful today had good conditions for domestication long ago."
But in Africa, something different happened, she said. Few plants were domesticated. Africans did domesticate cattle and donkeys, but that didn't encourage an intensive, settled agriculture. Instead, a herding culture thrived. Donkeys were the engines that moved men, women and children from pasture to pasture with their cattle and belongings.
Pastoralism is dying in the modern world as intensive, agricultural societies prevail economically. But Marshall says donkeys still have an important role to play.
Mules, the sterile offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, are used for agriculture the world over and renowned for their endurance. Miniature mules are now popular as pets. And donkeys are making a comeback as transportation for eco-tourists in southeastern Europe, Marshall said.
"The donkey is a gift that Africa had for the world," she said.
The estimated date and place for animal domestication changes as archaeologists find new evidence.
Dog_13,000 B.C._Asia, Europe
Pig_10,000 B.C._Near East
Sheep, Goat_9,000 B.C._Near East, South Asia
Cattle_8,000 B.C._Near East
Horse_3,000 B.C._Central Asia
Liberal Human Male, 1960s, U.S.A.
Secret Democrat burial ground?
Egypt was the world's first nation-state?
re: "wild asses"
definition: effect on the female derrier after multiple pregnancies.
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All but the Cat actually has a use.
If you were an ancient farmer or sailor who's stored food was being depleted by rodents you might think different.
i must respectfully disagree. i live out in the country and my mother lives blocks away from the local butcher shop. cats can be wonderful tools to keep the local rodent population down. sadly, they can also bring home trophies of headless cottontails (who usually are great at wiping out one's vegetable garden or fall display garden)!
I believe most people believe the cat was domesticated in Egypt, not Europe as the chart above says.
Short legs; you don't have to stand on tiptoe to load them up.
Chinchilla - South America
Llama - South America
Chicken - ??? Asia, Europe, (the Americas?)
Honey bees - ???
Rabbits - ???
A cat kills to eat, a terrier kills for the sport of it.
Only the elephant can dance, and it poorly.
My husband had the same attitude about cats until one day all our cats were gone. We store 2 tons of grain at a time to feed our horses. It didn't take long for the place to get overrun with mice. So we went out and got some cats. He's actually finally taken a liking to some of the cats.
Sadly?? What's so sad about that? Those flop eared monsters have been digging their holes in the roots of my poor young fruit trees and helping themselves to my vegetables all summer!! I wish my useless cat would go catch a wheelbarrow load.
Signed, Mr. MacGregor
notice the lack of any sarcasm tag here...