Unloved by research, the donkey has just found its original cradle


Donkey cap, saddled donkey, donkey kick. We can’t honestly say that the donkey is the most glamorous animal. In the popular imagination, he is good enough to die alone in the back of a stable or to do extra work. It does not matter that it is docile, enduring, able to carry titanic loads and still render “colossal services” in certain pastoral economies, and this general disaffection is found even in the work of scientists. “These biases of representation have spread in research, so much so that there are very few genetic studies on this animal while there are many on its very close cousin the horse”, remarks Ludovic Orlando, from the Center of ‘Anthropology and Genomics of Toulouse. CAGT)*. This “molecular archaeologist” is well placed to make amends, he is known for his work on the now extinct equines and on the origin of horse domestication Thousands of years before the horse But the time for the revenge of I know it. Together with 37 other scientists from around the world, the team used techniques developed during research on the noble horse to launch the largest genetic study ever carried out on donkeys. He examined 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 of Marseille and another grazing at the same time in a town on the Meuse. The group has just published its results on the cover of the famous magazine Science. He reveals that, contrary to the scenarios constructed so far due to a lack of concrete elements and which led to think that there could be several centers of domestication, there is only one: “Eastern Africa, more precisely the horn of the continent and Kenya”, specifies Ludovic Orlando. This, “7,000 years ago”, more than 2,000 years before 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 a broad sense. “It comes at a time when the region is becoming less green, more hostile. Is this why men began to use a robust beast like the donkey? It is a working model for which we do not provide evidence”, explains the genomicist from Toulouse. “Now our fellow archaeologists need to comb the ground to find the tangible evidence of this civilization that began to handle the donkey”, he adds, in the Meuse, for example, even in antiquity, breeders already they had an intuitive science of genetic crossings. , and its profitability. They were already selecting tall donkeys to cross with mares to produce mules with the endurance, 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 donkeys, Ludovic Orlando’s team now wants to focus on how “great civilizations modified their horses and donkeys”, and explain this Roman craze for mules that could have a much greater significance than it seems in the course of the history.*CNRS – Université Toulouse 3 Paul -Sabatier
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