Genetic investigators say the partnership between people and the ancestors of today's donkeys was sealed not by monarchs trying to establish kingdoms, but by mobile, pastoral people who had to recruit animals to help them survive the harsh Saharan landscape in northern Africa more than 5,000 years ago.
The findings, reported today by an international research team in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, paint a surprising picture of what small, isolated groups of people were able to accomplish when confronted with unpredictable storms and expanding desert.
"It says those early people were quite innovative, more so than many people today give them credit for," said senior author Connie J. Mulligan, Ph.D., an 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."
Sorting through the most comprehensive sampling of mitochondrial DNA ever assembled from ancient, historic and living specimens, scientists determined that the critically endangered African wild ass -- which today exists only in small numbers in eastern Africa, zoos and wildlife preserves -- is the living ancestor of the modern donkey.
What's more, researchers found evidence to suggest that a subspecies called the Nubian wild ass, presumed vanished late in the 20th century, is not only a direct ancestor of the donkey -- it may still exist.
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 B. Marshall, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Thursday, July 29, 2010