Egypt's revered donkeys

Published: Thursday 15 May 2008

Egypt's revered donkeys

-- Fiona Marshal and her international team of archaeologists were not really expecting to find donkeys while excavating a royal burial site in Egypt. For good reason. No animal has ever been found at an Egyptian burial site. But the funerary complex, overlooking the ancient town of Abydos on the Nile about 500 km south of Cairo, yielded skeletons of 10 donkeys that had been buried as if they were high-ranking officials. More importantly, the skeletons provide the first hard evidence for the earliest domestication of donkeys some 5,000 years ago.

The graves were uncovered in 2002. Marshal and her colleagues were evidently stumped by the enormity of their discovery. They reported their findings only this year in the March 11 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We were surprised to find no humans and funerary goods, and instead 10 donkeys. The findings are not exactly the stock-in-trade of Egyptologists," says Marshall, who is a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St Louis. The iconography of seals found in Abydos and the architectural style of the complex suggest a date close to the beginning of Egypt's Early Dynastic period, about 3000 BC, the researchers say.

Arthritic creatures
The donkeys resembled wild asses and were between 8 and 13 years of age--in their prime adulthood. But they displayed joint wear typically associated with the microscopic fractures that arise in the vertebral bones after overloading and strain. At the major joints like shoulders and hips, the bone surfaces were roughened where the cartilage had worn down. "These are the first definite evidence for their use as transport animals," says Marshall

"Genetic research has suggested African origins for the donkey. But an exact time and place for domestication had been hard to pinpoint," she adds. The archaeologists believe that their discovery will solve one of history's oldest riddles.

Domestication of the asses could have allowed the distribution of food across ancient Egypt and facilitated trade with other cultures in Africa and western Asia, the researchers say. "Donkeys probably made possible long-distance trade routes between the Egyptians and the Sumerians," Marshal says. The animals were well suited for the task, requiring little water and being able to subsist on meagre vegetation. "It was the first time that a beast of burden was used," the University of Washington archaeologist says.

Marshall and her colleagues compared the bones of the Abydos skeletons with more than 50 modern donkey and African wild ass skeletons. The results suggested the Abydos donkeys would have looked similar to the Somali wild ass, a subspecies of African wild ass that is still alive today. That would mean the Abydos donkey would have stood at four feet at the shoulder, weighing about 270 kg--much larger than a modern donkey.

The Abydos findings run counter to the traditional assumption about the domestication of animals, that wild animals quickly became smaller as people selectively bred them for farming, food or transport. Past research of isolated donkey bones has relied on size as a marker of domestication. Smaller size was presumed to be associated with the crowded, hardworking conditions of domesticated versions compared with the free-foraging wild asses. "But the idea that animals instantaneously get smaller with domestication doesn't hold true," says Melinda A Zeder, director of the archaeobiology programme at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Zerder, who has also studied domestication of goats says, "Human selection did make the donkeys much smaller. But that happened over centuries. "

As their size shrunk, the donkey became an animal for the poor and bumbling. But in ancient Egypt they enjoyed almost noble status. "The area where the donkeys were buried was reserved for courtiers, " says Matthew D Adams, an archaeologist and a lecturer in Egyptian art at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University said. He was a member of the team that excavated the graves.

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