(ORDO NEWS) — Despite changing history as beasts of burden needed to transport goods and people, the humble donkey has long been under-researched.
In the new study, scientists have taken a big step towards uncovering the origin of the species through a comprehensive genomic analysis of 238 ancient and modern donkeys, finding they were likely domesticated in East Africa around 7,000 years ago.
The article, published in the journal Science, was the result of an international collaboration led by Evelyn Todd of the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics, Toulouse, France.
“Donkeys subsequently spread into Eurasia from about 2500 BC, and subpopulations of Central and East Asia differentiated from 2000 to 1000 BC,” the team wrote.
Eventually, lines from Europe and the Middle East intermarried with West African donkey populations, the scientists note.
On the other hand, horses, their cousins, are believed to have been domesticated twice, the first time around 6,000 years ago in the steppes of western Eurasia.
The donkey DNA study included three jennies (females) and six jacks (males) from an ancient Roman settlement in France, who were closely bred.
The authors suggest that the Romans bred improved donkey bloodlines to produce mules, which were necessary to maintain the military and economic power of the empire.
Donkeys were vital to the development of ancient societies and remain important in middle- and low-income countries, but have lost their status and utility in modern industrialized societies, which may explain why science has neglected them, the researchers report.
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