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Donkeys and the Royal Society

28 July 2010

At www.eurekalert.org/pub_release/2010-07/uof-adi072810.php there is a report from a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on the domestication of donkeys which claims mobile pastoral peoples required animals that could survive the dry landscape of the Sahara over 5000 years ago. I don’t know if this is journalese but 5000 years ago we are back into the period of a green Sahara with a savannah environment, and pastoral people with herds of cattle, so at the start this story appears to be a little wonky. The claim is that the donkey was first domesticated in the Mahgreb region of North Africa as an animal of burden for a mobile community, carrying household items and paraphinalia, the transport of heavy water bags and the belongings of families and only later was it adopted as a pack animal on the trade routes of North Africa and SW Asia, most notably between Egypt and Sumeria. The donkey, from DNA, is descended from a variety of the African Wild Ass and it is assumed a now extinct species living in somewhere like Nubia or the central Sahara may have been the ancestor. The Somali Wild Ass has no genetic connection it would seem and as the ass was African an origin in Africa is assumed – but is this the only way to look at the problem? It is known that some African species, such as elephant and giraffe and lions were also once part of the fauna of Palestine and Arabia but became extinct through human activities. This is the region in which donkeys were used as pack animals so is the research complete it might be asked, or is their conclusion an assumption based on lack of evidence.

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