Monday, October 23, 2006

Domestication of the donkey

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."
See the above page for the full story.

Donkeys were domesticated early in Egypt, the earliest being known from the Neolithic site El Omari (to the south of Cairo), and they continued to be of considereable value throughout the Predynastic and Pharaonic periods. It is shown in numerous Old Kingdom scenes, and plentiful records of transactions concerning the purchase and leasing of donkeys have been found at the New Kingdom tomb-workers village Deir el Medineh. Camels were not mainstream in Egypt until the Graeco-Roman period, so donkeys were the most widely used beast of burden.

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