Dunce cap, saddled donkey, donkey kick. We cannot frankly say that the donkey is the most glamorous of animals. In the popular imagination, he is just good enough to die alone at the bottom of a stable or to do extra work. It matters little that he is docile, enduring, capable of carrying titanic loads and still rendering “colossal services” in certain pastoral economies.
And this general disaffection is found even in the work of scientists. “These representational biases have spread in research, so much so that there are very few genetic studies on this animal while there are a lot of them on its very close cousin the horse”, remarks Ludovic Orlando from the Center Anthropology and Genomics of Toulouse (CAGT)*. This “molecular archaeologist” is well placed to make amends, he is known for his work on equines that are now extinct and on the origin of the domestication of horses.
Thousands of years earlier than the horse
But the hour of the donkey’s revenge has come. Together with 37 other scientists worldwide, the team used the techniques developed during research on the noble horse to launch the largest genetic study ever produced on donkeys. She sifted through the complete genomes of 207 living donkeys from around the world. But it also went back in time with 31 old donkeys, including one, medieval, found near the Old Port in Marseille and another grazing at the same time in a town in the Meuse.
The group has just published its results on the cover of the famous journal Science. He reveals that, contrary to the scenarios constructed so far for lack of concrete elements and which suggested that there could be several centers of domestication, there is only one: “East Africa , more precisely the horn of the continent and in Kenya”, specifies Ludovic Orlando. This, “7,000 years ago”, more than 2,000 years earlier than the domestication of the cousin horse in the steppes of Russia.
The team also notes the coincidence between the appearance of the first home of the domestic donkey and the desertification of the Sahara in the broad sense. “It comes at a time when the region is becoming less green, more hostile. Is that why men began to use a sturdy beast like the donkey? It’s a working model that we don’t provide proof of,” explains the Toulouse genomician. “It now remains for our fellow archaeologists to comb the ground to find the tangible evidence of this civilization which has begun to manipulate the donkey,” he adds.
Waiting for the mule
The team also had confirmation that in the Meuse for example, even in antiquity, breeders already had an intuitive science of genetic crosses, and their profitability. They were already selecting donkeys with high shoulders to cross them with mares and obtain mules with endurance, the strength of their fathers and the speed of their mothers. Mules, by definition sterile, and which the Romans nevertheless made an instrument of domination of their gigantic empire to move armies or ammunition, or communicate messages.
After having identified the focus of domestication of the horse and now that of the donkeys, Ludovic Orlando’s team now wants to focus on how “the great civilizations modified their horses and their donkeys”, and to explain this enthusiasm of the Romans. for the mules which could have a far greater importance than it seems in the course of history.
*CNRS – Toulouse 3 Paul-Sabatier University