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Out of Africa: The Origin of Donkeys

By Kate Ruder

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The donkey is still a form of transport in parts of Africa, where the species orginated.
After collecting and analyzing donkey and wild ass DNA from all over the world, scientists have concluded that wild asses in Northeast Africa are the ancestors of modern donkeys.

The new findings suggest that two populations of wild asses in Africa were the first to be domesticated by people thousands of years ago, and these donkeys then traveled with people to other parts of the world. Albano Beja-Pereira of Université Joseph Fourier in France led the study published online today in Science.

Donkeys are, by definition, domesticated asses, and they constitute their own species, Equus asinus.

For two years, Beja-Pereira and his colleagues labored to collect skin samples from donkeys in 52 countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and dung from wild asses in Sudan, China, and Mongolia. They later extracted DNA from the mitochondria found in donkey skin and dung samples.

It was a dirty and dangerous job. African and Asian asses are critically endangered and skittish of humans in the wild so Beja-Pereira had to collect what the asses left behind at watering holes or grazing grounds. Beja-Pereira also traveled to war-torn Sudan to track an elusive heard of African wild asses on the shores of the Red Sea.

“If you want to trust the results, then you have to collect the samples yourself,” says Beja-Pereira, adding that he relied on guides and local researchers for help in finding the animals.

“Sudan is ravaged by war and not many people interested in donkeys,” Beja-Pereira adds. “They are more interested in their own lives than in looking for asses.”

The history of donkeys is tied to human history. Archaeologists have been intrigued by where and when donkeys were first used by people because it marks a shift from agrarian to more mobile, trade-oriented society.

The most surprising finding was that African wild asses are the true ancestors of modern donkeys, putting to rest a debate among historians and archaeologists about whether donkeys arose from wild asses in Asia or Africa.

“This study could stimulate significant donkey buzz,” says Fiona Marshall, a zoo-archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who studies the domestication of animals in Africa.

Of all domesticated animals, the donkey is studied the least. Despite the critical role that it played in travel and transport throughout human history, the donkey is often the butt of jokes and garners little respect.

“Throughout the ages people sang about cattle,” notes Marshall. “Donkeys were not painted, celebrated, or considered special.”

With the new DNA analysis, the donkey is finally getting its due.

Beja-Pereira, Albano et al. African Origins of the Domestic Donkey. Science 304, 1781 (June 18, 2004).

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