Scientists Uncover the Story of Donkey Domestication | Good Information

Four donkeys carry loads of grass on their backs

Donkeys are necessary pack animals that helped form human civilizations.
Andrew Holt through Getty Pictures

For 1000’s of years, donkeys have been vital for propelling human civilizations ahead. They’ve helped pull wheeled automobiles, carry vacationers and transfer items the world over. 

However the place and when these animals first turned intertwined with people has been a thriller. Now, researchers have used the genomes of over 200 donkeys to hint their domestication again to a single occasion round 7,000 years in the past in East Africa—about 3,000 years earlier than people tamed horses. The workforce revealed their findings, which element the donkey’s historical past, within the journal Science this month. 

“Through their DNA, the animals are telling their history themselves,” co-author Samantha Brooks, an equine researcher on the College of Florida, says in a statement. “We usually only get the human’s side of history through written accounts, but of course written history does not always record exactly how something happened. Looking at these DNA sequences, we get a biological testimony to the environment these animals lived in and the experiences they survived.”


The researchers examined 207 genomes from fashionable donkeys dwelling in 31 international locations throughout the globe. In addition they checked out genomes from 15 wild equids and 31 earlier donkeys that lived between about 4,000 and 100 years in the past. The workforce reconstructed the animals’ evolutionary tree and used pc fashions to pinpoint the domestication occasion, when herders in Kenya and the Horn of Africa tamed wild asses. They then traced how the animals unfold throughout the remainder of the continent and into Europe and Asia about 2,500 years later. 

“This is the story of the donkeys… and the detail is amazing,” Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist on the College of Oxford in England who was not concerned with the research, tells Science’s Elizabeth Pennisi. “I’m pleased to see the donkey finally getting his day.” 

The findings revealed different bits of the animal’s historical past: For instance, at what seems to have been a donkey breeding middle in an historical Roman villa positioned in northeastern France, people bred African and European donkeys collectively to create “giant donkeys,” Science writes. These animals have been almost 10 inches taller than a normal donkey.


Although it’s nonetheless unclear why the unique domestication occurred, Science News Freda Kreier reviews that the occasion coincided with the Sahara rising bigger and extra arid. 

“Donkeys are champions when it comes to carrying stuff and are good at going through deserts,” co-author Ludovic Orlando, an evolutionary biologist at Paul Sabatier College in France, tells the publication. Prehistoric people might have enlisted donkeys’ assist in navigating the increasing Sahara.


Researchers say these findings might assist put donkeys within the highlight, per Science Information. The animals may gain advantage from extra analysis: At present, there are not any revealed genomes from donkeys positioned south of the equator in Africa. However understanding the place the animals have been first domesticated might information archaeologists to a narrower area to seek for insights concerning the unique tamed donkeys, per the publication.

Not solely does understanding the equines’ genetic make-up assist reveal their contributions to human historical past, however it additionally would possibly enhance their administration sooner or later, as local weather change alters the planet’s atmosphere, write the authors. At present, about 50 million donkeys reside on Earth, and so they stay necessary for agriculture and transportation. 


“Donkeys are extraordinary working animals that are essential to the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe,” Emily Clark, a livestock geneticist on the College of Edinburgh in Scotland who was not concerned within the research, tells Science Information. “As humans, we owe a debt of gratitude to the domestic donkey for the role they play and have played in shaping society.” 

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