The history and spread of donkeys in Africa

The history and spread of donkeys in Africa

The domestication and historical development of the donkey are traced through archaeological and linguistic associations. The donkey is indigenous to the African continent and its wild progenitor is usually considered to be the Nubian wild ass. Historically, a chain of races of wild ass spread from the Atlas Mountains to the Red Sea and probably as far south as the border of present-day northern Kenya. The wild ass may well have been domesticated several times, given the semi-feral production systems under which it was managed until recently. Records of domestic asses begin in Egypt in the fourth millennium BC. The extent to which the wild ass penetrated the interior of Africa is unknown. Faunal remains and rock art representations are extremely rare, which is somewhat at odds with the widespread distribution and economic importance of the donkey in Africa today. This apparent contradiction can probably be explained by the fact that donkeys have been of most importance to poor households and have consequently had low prestige. The spread of the donkey across Africa was linked with the proliferation of long distance caravans. It is argued that greater attention to the nearly extinct wild ass and to traditional management systems could be helpful in the future development of the donkey in Africa.

In brief – donkeys domesticated probably in the Egypt/Nubia area at the beginning of the neolithic in Africa about 6,500 years ago. Their expansion also seems to mark the expansion of sorghum as a crop, so assuming a similar date for both domestications seems reasonable. I can tell you from memory the oldest donkey remains in Syria/Iraq are about 4,800 years old, similar for sorghum. I have another item around here somewhere on this subject. The conclusion is…

The donkey is certainly derived from the African wild ass, although it may have been domesticated several times in regions of its former range no longer represented by its present-day distribution. This appears to be confirmed by studies of terms for donkey in various African language families. Egypt remains the most likely centre for its early development for agricultural work, although without further archaeology outside the Nile Valley this is uncertain.


One response to “The history and spread of donkeys in Africa

  1. This is a very ric work, well done.

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