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History of Donkeys

 
 

Ancient History

The ancestors of the modern donkey are the Nubian and Somalian subspecies of African wild ass. Remains of domestic donkeys dating to the fourth millennium BC have been found in Ma'adi in Lower Egypt, and it is believed that the domestication of the donkey was accomplished long after the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats in the seventh and eighth millennia BC.

 

History Of Donkeys - donkey in ancient egyptian painting circa 1298 BC

 

Donkeys were probably first domesticated by pastoral people in Nubia, and they supplanted the ox as the chief pack animal of that culture. The domestication of donkeys served to increase the mobility of pastoral cultures, having the advantage over ruminants of not needing time to chew their cud, and were vital in the development of long-distance trade across Egypt.

 

In the Dynasty IV era of Egypt, between 2675 and 2565 BC, wealthy members of society were known to own over 1,000 donkeys, employed in agriculture, as dairy and meat animals and as pack animals.

 

 By the end of the fourth millennium BC, donkeys had spread to Southwest Asia, and the main breeding center had shifted to Mesopotamia by 1800 BC. The breeding of large, white riding asses made Damascus famous, while Syrian breeders developed at least three other breeds, including one preferred by women for its easy gait.

 

History of Donkeys - donkey and family from a 1917 National Geographic

 

The Muscat or Yemen ass was developed in Arabia. By the second millennium BC, the donkey was brought to Europe, possibly at the same time as viticulture was introduced, as the donkey is associated with the Syrian god of wine, Dionysus. Greeks spread both of these to many of their colonies, including those in what are now Italy, France and Spain; Romans dispersed them throughout their empire.

Donkeys in North America 

The first donkeys in the New World arrived in 1495 on a supply ship to Christopher Columbus, with four jacks and two jennies in the cargo delivered to Hispaniola. These were used to breed mules for expeditions to mainland America, with males preferred for pack animals and the females for riding.

 

History of Donkeys - French Poitou sold to Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1906

 

The first shipment of mules, including three jacks and twelve jennies, arrived in Mexico from Cuba ten years after the conquest of the Aztecs. Mules were used in silver mines, and each Spanish outpost in the empire bred its own mules from its own jack. Donkeys arrived in large numbers in the western United States during the nineteenth century gold rushes, as pack animals and for use in mines and ore-grinding mills. The major use of donkeys came to an end with the end of the mining boom and the introduction of railroads in the West. With little value, many animals were turned loose to become the populations of free-roaming donkeys that inhabit the West today.

 

Miniature donkeys originally developed on Sicily and Sardinia in the Mediterranean, but are now almost extinct on those islands. Breeders in the United States have spent decades breeding what they term the Miniature Mediterranean Donkey, a mix of Sicilian and Sardinian strains, following the establishment of a breed registry in 1958.

 

History of Donkeys - Standard Donkey in modern day Greece

 

Large, draft-type donkeys originated with the Andalusian-type donkey, and today are seen in the United States as the American Mammoth Jack, a mix of many other donkey breeds.

Donkeys in Today's World 

As of 2007 there were estimated to be around 44 million donkeys worldwide. The majority of these are used for agriculture and transportation.  Most of the 55,000 donkeys in the United States are used for recreation or kept primarily as pets.  It is estimated that half of American donkeys are of the miniature variety.

 

History of Donkeys - miniature donkeys in a Texas pasture

 

Donkeys are increasing in popularity in Canada and the US, where they are often used as pack animals, riding animals and for driving and draft work. They are also used to halter break calves and colts and as guardian animals for flocks of sheep and goats, protecting them from coyotes and dogs.

 

According to British food writer Matthew Fort, donkeys were, until recently, used in the Italian Army. The Mountain Fusiliers each had a donkey to carry their gear, and in extreme circumstances the animal could be eaten. They have also been used to carry explosives in conflicts that include the war in Afghanistan and others. Some cultures that prohibit women from working with oxen in agriculture do not extend this taboo to donkeys allowing them to be used by both genders.

 

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