The Story of Donkey Domestication

Research shows that humans domesticated donkeys in East Africa, about 3,000 years before we started domesticating horses.


Donkey standing patiently beside a tree

For millennia, donkeys have been critical for propelling human civilizations forward. The 'beasts of burden' have pulled wheeled vehicles, carried travelers and moved goods across the world.


But where and when these animals first became intertwined with humans has been a mystery. Now, researchers have used the genomes of over 200 donkeys to trace their domestication back to a single event around 7,000 years ago in East Africa - about 3,000 years before humans tamed horses. The team have published their findings, which detail the donkey’s history, in the journal Science.


“This is the story of the donkeys… and the detail is amazing,” says Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. “I’m pleased to see the donkey finally getting his day.”


The findings revealed other bits of the animal's history: For example, at what appears to have been a donkey breeding center in an ancient Roman villa located in northeastern France, humans bred African and European donkeys together to create “giant donkeys.” These animals were nearly 10 inches taller than a standard donkey.


Though it’s still unclear why the original domestication happened, Science News reports that the event coincided with the Sahara growing larger and more arid.


“Donkeys are champions when it comes to carrying stuff and are good at going through deserts,” says Ludovic Orlando, an evolutionary biologist. Prehistoric humans may have enlisted donkeys’ help in navigating the expanding Sahara.


“Donkeys are extraordinary working animals that are essential to the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe,” says Emily Clark, a livestock geneticist at the University of Edinburgh. “As humans, we owe a debt of gratitude to the domestic donkey for the role they play and have played in shaping society.”

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