Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Origin of the Donkey

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THE majority of modern naturalists have long attributed an Asiatic origin to the domestic asses. They have believed that the species are derived from the so-called onagras or wild asses of Asia, which the ancients mention, and which are still met wandering in droves of greater or less size, from the northern part of the Altai Mountains to the southern regions of the continent. As late as 1862, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire assumed that the primitive country of the ass was partly in Asia, partly in Africa, because, he said, "the onagra extends from Asia to Northwestern Africa." In 1869, however, M. H. Milne-Edwards considered it well demonstrated that the ass is essentially an African species, which occurs in Asia only in a domesticated condition; and that all that the ancients, and modern travellers as well, have said of the wild asses or onagras of Syria, Persia, etc., is applicable to the hemippus and other varieties of Equus hemionus, and not to Equus asinus. The horse, on the other hand, appears to have originated in Central Asia and a part of Europe. It is presumable that the domestication of the ass was effected in Africa, probably in Upper Egypt or some neighboring country, and that of the horse took place in the region occupied by the Indo-Germanic peoples. If the civilization of Central Asia and Europe had much preceded that of Egypt, we might have presumed that the Egyptians received trained horses from abroad before taming the ass that lived wild in their land; but nothing authorizes us to suppose that this was the case. In all probability, the Egyptians made use of the indigenous species, or the ass, before they did of the horse, an exotic species that never came to Africa till it was domesticated.

M. George, in his "Études Zoologiques," brings evidence corroborative of these views. Real wild asses are now found, according to him, only in Abyssinia, where they have the slate-gray color and the cranial peculiarities typical of the species.

The name by which the Semitic peoples call the ass, hamar (ancient Assyrian, imeru), a name signifying red or bright fawn color, is applicable to the hemione and not to the ass, and indicates that, confounding the two species as modern naturalists and travelers have done, they gave to the introduced animal the name which they had long applied to the similar but not identical native animal. M. Sanson was therefore right in calling the Oriental domesticated beast the Egyptian breed, or Equus Caballus Africanus. M. Sanson has also made a distinct race, the European, of the asses which are native to the Hispano-Atlantic center; and, as their restricted geographical area leaves no doubt that their original home was there, the propriety of this distinction can hardly be called in question. Many documents also indicate that no race of asses is native to the northern regions of the old continent. Herodotus, Aristotle, and Strabo, all speak of the absence of asses from Scythia and Northwestern Europe, and account for it by the severity of the climate, which, they say, the animals are not able to endure. They were perfectly familiar with that part of those regions which lies north of the Black Sea; so their testimony as to that part is decisive. In the time of Diodorus, three hundred years after Aristotle, horses were employed in the transportation of tin from the shores of the British Channel to the mouth of the Rhine; and this indicates that asses were still unknown or rare in that part of Gaul. There is evidence, however, that the ass had been acclimated in the time of Aristotle in some of the most temperate parts of Central Europe; for Frontin, in his "Stratagems," tells that Atheas, King of the Scythians, a contemporary of Philip of Macedon, being at war with the Triballians and hard pressed, sent around his whole unarmed population, with the asses and cattle, to appear on the rear of his enemies and cause them to believe that he was receiving large re-enforcements.

Even now the ass does not live in, by any means, all of the northern part of the Eastern Continent. Ujfalvey says that the animals live and breed at Semipalatinsk, where the temperature falls to 15° below zero, but that at Omsk they are "fancy stock," and are kept alive only with great care; and he gives statistics to show that asses and mules are very few in comparison with horses all through Turkistan, there being only twelve of them to 415,060 horses in the coldest and most mountainous government of that country.

We do not know when they were introduced into China; but it is related that the Emperor Ling-ti (168-189) made them fashionable at his court instead of horses. The Abbé Hue says that they thrive in Thibet and the northern provinces of China. It is, however, certain that they were not domesticated by the Proto-Mongols, the ancestors of the Chinese, in Northern Mongolia; and there appear to be few or none of them now in that country; for travelers speak of large flocks of sheep, goats, cows, camels, and horses, but never mention asses.

There is no probability that the Aryans were better acquainted with this animal in their original home than the Proto-Mongols in theirs. The ass is not among the animals offered in sacrifice by the heroes of the Avesta, and is only mentioned once in that book. At the time the Mazdean law was given, the Iranians were in possession of Northern Persia, where the ass had been introduced, and had been captured by Tiglath-pileser I.

The ass was taken to India very early, and the law of Menu leaves no doubt of the antiquity of its use among the Hindoos. It, for example, prohibits a Brahman from reading on an ass; declares that the Chandelas and Swapakas shall have no property but dogs and asses; and orders Dija, who had broken his vow of chastity, to sacrifice a dark or black ass to Niwiti, and to wear its skin, begging for a year, and confessing his sin, in seven houses every day.

Asses appear to have been in use among the Hebrews from the time of Abraham; in Assyria and the neighboring countries from the time of Tiglath-pileser I, and in Greece from the time of Hesiod, who mentions the custom of castrating mules; and Homer compares the rage of Ajax with that of an ass rushing wildly through the fields. The great Harris papyrus, describing one of the conquests of Rameses, speaks of the chiefs of Tonoutu as arriving at Coptos with their tribes, and bringing with them caravans of asses and men. In the same document, Menephthah I, relating his victory over the Mashonash and the Libyans, describes the "vile chief of the Rebu" as losing all his goods and precious things, and "everything that he had brought with him from his country, his cattle, his goats, and his asses."

The most ancient instances of the application of asses to useful purposes were in Egypt. A bas-relief in a hypogeum of Gizeh, of the date of the fourth dynasty, represents two droves of asses; and M. Lenormant remarks: "As to the ass, we see it figured on the Egyptian tombs as far back as we go. It is frequently represented in the tombs of the ancient empire, at Gizeh, Sakkara, and Abousir. The beautiful bas-relief on the tomb of Ti (fifth dynasty), representing a group of asses, of which a model was exhibited by M. Mariette at the Universal Exposition of 1867, has certainly not been forgotten. From the time of the fourth dynasty, the ass was as widely diffused in Egypt as it is now. In the tomb of Shafra-Ankh, at Gizeh, is an item of a drove of seven hundred and sixty trained asses among the assets of the deceased, who was a high functionary of the court of the founder of the great pyramid. In other tombs discovered by M. Mariette, but not yet fully described, I have remarked cases of proprietors who boasted the possession of thousands of asses. . . . Furthermore, the facts on this subject derived from the study of the monuments were not peculiar to Egypt only. . . . In the paintings on the tomb of Noumhotep, at Beni-Hassan-el-Kadim, may be seen the arrival of the family of Aamon, that is, of the nomadic shepherds of the Semitic race, who came to establish themselves in Egypt under one of the first reigns of the twelfth dynasty (about 3000 b. c.). Their only beasts of burden are the asses that carry their goods and children."

Although asses are thus frequently figured on the ancient monuments of Egypt, no representation of the mule has been found there, not even on the numerous monuments built after the horse was introduced. The people had already a good stock of camels and asses, and their soil was not of a character to call the work of mules into requisition; and mules are still scarce in Egypt.

On the other hand, the Assyrians have left us but few figures of the ass; but numerous representations of mules appear in their bas-reliefs, where these animals are plainly recognizable by their ears and horse-tails.

The first mules in the East were probably produced in those regions of Asia lying between the Ganges and the Mediterranean littoral of Syria, a short time after the arrival of the first Mongolian immigrants into these countries, where, through their residence, the Asiatic horses and the African or Nilotic asses first met. It is, then, not surprising that the legends carry the existence of mules in Assyria back into fabulous times. The cuneiform inscriptions, moreover, furnish certain and quite numerous facts attesting the antiquity of the existence of mules in that and the neighboring countries.

The use of mules was condemned by the Mosaic law, and was not adopted among the Israelites till after the priestly power had been subordinated to that of the laity by the establishment of royalty. The most ancient mention of these animals among the Israelites refers to the mules on which the people of the tribes of Issachar, Zebulon, and Naphthali brought provisions to Hebron for David, after the death of Saul (1 Chron. xii, 40). After this they are frequently referred to.

The mule is mentioned in the Veda; and Strabo says that the Prasii, on the banks of the Ganges, had them at the time of the voyage of Megasthenes to India.

Herodotus tells of the mules which Cyrus had to draw his water wagons on his march from Persia to the siege of Babylon, and relates a curious story of one of the mules attached to the expedition of Xerxes against the Greeks. The markets of Tyre, in the time of Ezekiel, were supplied with mules by the people of Togarma, or Armenia.

According to Diodorus, Alexander, after the siege of Persepolis, brought from Babylon, Mesopotamia, and Susiana, a multitude of pack and draught mules and three thousand camels, with which to take away the treasure from that city; and, when the body of Alexander was taken from Babylon to Egypt, "four tongues were fixed to the chariot, and to each tongue a train of four yokes, each yoke composed of four mules, the whole forming a team of sixty-four mules selected for their vigor and spirit." Homer furnishes a number of evidences of the antiquity of the existence of mules in Asia Minor and Greece, and in one place declares them superior for certain purposes to oxen.

Not only do we possess fewer ancient facts respecting asses and mules than respecting horses, because their part in history has been less important, but the historical documents on asses and mules permit us to trace their past further back in the East than in the West, and this is easily explained. In the first place, the habit of preserving the memory of facts arose earlier in the East than in the West; and, in the second place, our facts relative to the Western ass are derived chiefly from the Latin authors, whose references are less exact, because they were apt to include in a lump under the designation of jumenta all the kinds of pack and draught animals, horses, asses, mules, oxen, and camels, that composed the baggage-trains of the armies whose exploits they related.

It is, nevertheless, true that the domestication of the European ass must have dated from a very ancient time; it must have followed very shortly the importation into the Hispano-Atlantic center of the use of dolmens and arms of polished stone. M. Boucher de Perthes has found in the peats of the Somme, some fifteen or sixteen feet below the level of the stream, an equoid skull, which M. Sanson has recognized as that of an African or Nilotic ass. The animal to which it belonged, or one of its ancestors, must have been taken there by man.

Only a few documents support the probability that mules existed in Southwestern Europe in very ancient times. Varro says that the senator Axius bought a stallion-ass for four hundred thousand sestertiæ, or $16,800. Columella's treatise on agriculture bears witness to the importance of work with mules among the Romans. This accounts for the high prices that were sometimes paid for particular stallions, for the species was neither rare nor new in Italy. The earliest mention of a mule in Rome, with a definite date, is that of the animals that drew the chariot in which Tullia rode over the body of her father Tullius after he was assassinated, b. c. 534.

The histories of the Roman wars contain several incidents in which mules appear to have been used in the army on a large scale, and of stratagems in which they were made to play a prominent part: as when the consul L. Papirius Cursor, making war upon the Samnites, frightened the enemy with the noise of a drove of them rushing down the mountain and dragging large limbs behind them; and when Julius Cæsar, in the civil wars, prevented the Pompeiians in Spain from decamping by marching his mules with a great bustle by their camp, and making them think that he was retiring.

Our historical citations show, then, with great probability, that the two asinine races are natives of hot countries, the one of the region of the Upper Nile, the other of the Hispano-Atlantic center. For this reason they are difficult of acclimation in cold regions, while they are better able than horses to endure the torrid temperature of the diamond-regions of Southern Africa. Furthermore, the African or Nilotic ass was diffused from a very ancient period over a geographical area which extended at least from the Ganges to the Atlantic Ocean, while the European or Hispano-Atlantic ass has hardly got beyond the boundaries of his original country. The history of asses, then, as well as that of horses, testifies that the ancient migrations of civilization did not start from the western part of the continent.

  1. From a new work, "Les Chevaux dans le Temps prehistoriques et historiques" ("Horses in Prehistorical and Historical Times"). Translated and abridged for "The Popular Science Monthly."