Origin of the donkey and breeding by the Romans

There is an interesting report in the journal Science concerning a study on the origin of the donkey and how it was selectively bred by the Romans later on. They researched the relationship between geographic regions and donkey genes (phylogeography).

Donkeys are social animals. You will see some wonderful, loving relationships between donkeys and people on the Internet in videos. I’ve discussed this on this website and you can read about one story by clicking on this link if you wish.

Donkey mosaic from Roman times
Donkey mosaic from Roman times. Image in public domain.

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Prof Ludovic Orlando of the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, is the lead author of the research. The idea was to unravel the donkey’s evolutionary origins.

They analysed hundreds of modern and ancient animals.

They concluded that the donkey was domesticated only once around 5000 BC which is 7000 years ago.

The study refers to a previous study by Todd and colleagues in which they sequenced the genomes of modern and ancient donkeys “and found evidence of an Eastern African origin over 7000 years ago”.

It seems that they relied upon this study in their research. For the sake of clarity, a donkey is a unique species. The African wild ass (Equus africanus) or African wild donkey is a member of the horse family. My understanding is that it is this species of wild ass that was domesticated 7000 years ago.

It is believed that herders in Africa would have tamed them around the same time that the Sahara became the desert region that we see today.

The donkey is a beast of burden. It has helped humans build trade routes and even empires. Sadly, often abused.

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It was and remains an indispensable working animal for many people including farm labourers.

The professor believes that the domestication of the wild ass came about because of a need for “transportation in those increasingly difficult conditions”.

After the initial domestication, around 2500 years later, donkeys reached Europe and Asia. I will speculate and say that this happened because of commercial travellers using donkeys to travel to these places.

And in this evolving journey of domestication, it is unsurprising to learn that there were selective breeding. The researchers believe that there was a breeding center for giant donkeys at ancient Roman villa near the village of Boinville-en-Woëvre in north-eastern France.

This would have been the creation of hybrids by crossing horses with donkeys to produce mules that were used by the Roman military. It is believed that they were around 10 inches (25 cm) taller than normal.

The intention of the researchers was to elucidate the benefit of the donkey to human society. The professor said:

“Despite their importance to ancient pastoral societies, little is known about the deep history of donkeys and the impact of human management on their genomes”.

The objective was to assess the donkey’s contribution to human history and in addition to contribute to the breeding of even tougher donkeys in the future which may be useful in parts of the world where global warming becomes a major issue.

Study link: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abo3503

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Post Category: Horses > donkeys