How men in ancient Africa domesticated wild donkeys for agriculture and transportation

Stephen Nartey March 20, 2023
Donkeys carrying load/Photo credit: Smithsonian Magazine

For centuries, domestic donkeys have been of immense benefit to humans, especially in the area of labor and transportation – when it comes to getting to hard-to-reach areas. In some cases, they have been legs to wheelers and food to some families. As much as their roles cannot be overemphasized, depending on which part of the continent they are, their origins, how they were domesticated, and their relationship with humans, has been one of the intriguing puzzles archaeologists and historians have sought to answer.

Enlightenment on this mystery was provided by scientists from the Universite Paul Sabatier, led by Dr. Evelyn Todd. With her team, they sequenced 238 genomes of modern and ancient donkeys, and the findings were startling. They created an evolutionary tree and traced how the animals were domesticated. They then established that early men in eastern Africa domesticated donkeys more than 7,000 years ago, according to earth. Particularly, how herders in Kenya and the horn of Africa subdued the wild beasts. It was only 2,500 years later the animals migrated to parts of Europe and Asia.  The researchers found out that samples they collected from Europe and Asia had a linkage with genes in donkeys found in parts of western Africa.

Initially, the team was surprised by the discovery of unknown genetic lineage in the samples they collected, which seemed to be responsible for the increase in the population of donkeys in the Asian population. The possible explanation for the growth in the donkey population was a result of interbreeding and the commercialization of healthy bloodlines when its importance to the Roman economy and military activities became evident, according to science news. The Romans crossed donkeys from Europe with the African-bred birth donkeys that were 10 inches taller than the standard donkeys.

But in Africa, early men tamed the ‘beasts of the wild’ as they termed it, for pastoral activities in the eastern part of Africa where settlers are in low and middle-income brackets. It is believed they were useful in crossing the desert and carrying heavy loads which ordinarily would have been the burden of men. Researchers, however,  believe there is more work to be done. They are seeking to identify the main source of domestication in Africa, as well as link the genomes of other early donkeys on both shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They are of the view that donkeys played a role in the ancient trade between Europe and North Africa.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 20, 2023


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