A new scientific study has shed light on the origin of the donkey, an animal prominently featured in the Bible, including in one of the most enigmatic episodes of the Pentateuch, the journey of the evil prophet Balaam described in the book of Numbers.
According to the Bible, as the Israelites wandered in the desert towards the end of their forty years in the wilderness, a well-known diviner, Balaam was recruited by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the people of Israel. As he set out for his mission, his female donkey tried to dissuade him from pursuing it.
“When the ass now saw the angel of Hashem, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick. Then Hashem opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.” Then Hashem uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of Hashem standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.” (Numbers 22:27-31).
Compared to other domesticated animals, the donkey has received relatively little attention from researchers. For this reason, the new study “The genomic history and global expansion of domestic donkeys” recently published in the journal Science, has been welcomed as groundbreaking in revealing when and where donkeys became longstanding human companions, as well as how they spread around the world.
“Donkeys transformed human history as essential beasts of burden for long-distance movement, especially across semi-arid and upland environments,” the researchers wrote. “They remain insufficiently studied despite globally expanding and providing key support to low- to middle-income communities. To elucidate their domestication history, we constructed a comprehensive genome panel of 207 modern and 31 ancient donkeys, as well as 15 wild equids.”
Evidence of the importance of donkeys in the ancient world appears in the Bible beginning in Genesis – for instance, when Abraham begins the journey he believes will culminate with the sacrifice of his son Isaac, he rides a donkey. The donkey is prominently featured also in Christian and Muslim traditions, as both Jesus and Mohammed are described as riding one.
“I guess that we simply forgot the importance of this animal, probably being blown away by the impact of its close cousin, the horse,” Ludovic Orlando, director of the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse in France and one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times.
The researchers found out that contrary to what was previously believed, donkeys were domesticated not in multiple locations but only once, in the Horn of Africa, around 7,000 years ago. According to the study, the period was characterized by an era of drought and donkeys proved to be particularly good at adapting to water scarcity.
Over the millennia, donkeys spread outside Africa, reaching Asia and Europe some 4,500 years ago.
“While rivers such as the Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt could be used for transport of heavy and/or bulk goods, donkeys meant a massive increase and intensification of contacts over land,” Evelyn Todd, a population geneticist at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse who was also involved in the study, told the BBC.
One of the donkeys examined in the study was unearthed at the site of Tell es-Safi, located between the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Beit Shemesh.
Donkeys also proved to be crucial for warfare.
“We started to see them in front of wheeled vehicles taking part in battles, as well as providing transport for the provisions needed for an invading army,” archaeologist Laerke Recht at the University of Graz in Austria, told the BBC.
And while they might receive less attention than horses and dogs, donkeys are still essential to many people up to this day.
“The donkey is an important animal in the daily lives of millions of people throughout the world,” Todd said. “Its population is increasing by 1% each year. Although in developed countries, donkeys aren’t used in daily lives, in many developing communities in regions including Africa and the Arabian peninsula, people still rely on donkeys for movements of people and goods.”