History of Donkeys
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History of Donkeys

a donkey
Donkey

People probably first thought of donkeys as food, and hunted them. But by around 4000 BC people in Nubia (now northern Sudan) tamed donkeys and begun to use them to carry things from one place to another (This is about the same time as people tamed horses in Central Asia). People may have tamed donkeys because Africa was getting warmer, and they had to change the way they lived in order to deal with that. Donkeys made trade easier, and Nubians began to trade more with Egypt. By about 3000 BC, West Asian people also used donkeys for trade.

a herd of donkeys wall carving
Old Kingom Egypt (ca. 2500 BC)

People also used donkeys to ride on, and to plow fields in lighter soils (for heavier soils, donkeys are not strong enough, and you have to use cattle).

Green metal mule
Bronze charm in the shape of a mule
(China, Han Dynasty, ca. 100 BC)

The Mediterranean and West Asia are excellent places for donkeys, which are like horses but smaller. Donkeys quickly became very popular in West Asia and all around the Mediterranean. Donkeys are strong, so they can carry heavy loads, but they are small so they don't need as much to eat as cattle or horses do. And donkeys have good digestion. They're not as delicate as horses, and they can eat practically anything.

A mule is the baby of a boy donkey and a girl horse; they're bigger and stronger than donkeys, but easier to take care of than horses. Mules were popular all across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but they can't have their own babies.

mosaic of a man feeding a donkey
Feeding a donkey
Constantinople, 500s AD
man hushes a donkey with praying hands
Vasudeva begs the donkey
(Hosaholalu, southern India, 1200s AD)

Throughout the time of the Persian Empire and the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages and beyond, donkeys were very common all over Africa, Europe, and Asia. In this carving from a Hindu temple in medieval India, the donkey is about to bray to announce the birth of Krishna, but Vasudeva, who is sneaking Krishna to safety in a basket, begs the donkey to be quiet so he won't wake up the prison guards (compare this story to the birth of Jesus).

Learn by doing: go see a donkey in the zoo or at a state fair
More about horses

Bibliography and further reading about donkeys:

definitive donkey

Wonders of Donkeys, by Sigmund Lavine and Vincent Scuro (1979). Easy reading.

The Definitive Donkey, by Betsy Hutchins (1999). All about donkeys, including how to train them.

Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies, by Juliet Clutton-Brock (1992).

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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