Samples of the Story
Note: Text extracts are from un-copyedited manuscript and may differ slightly from the printed version.
Preface and Author’s Note
HUNTERS AND THE HUNTED
WOLVES AND PEOPLE
2. Curious Neighbors and Wolf-Dogs
3. Cherished Companions
THE FARMING REVOLUTION
4. Down on the First Farms . . .
5. Working Landscapes
6. Corralling the Aurochs
7. “Wild Bull on the Rampage”
HOW THE DONKEY STARTED
8. “Average Joes”
9. The Pickup Trucks of History
THE BEASTS THAT TOPPLED EMPERORS
10. Taming Equus
11. The Horsemasters’ Legacies
12. Deposing Sons of Heaven
SHIPS OF THE DESERT
13. “Animals Designed by God”
“MILD, PATIENT, ENDURING”
14. Dominion over Beasts?
15. “The Hell for Dumb Animals”
16. Victims of Military Insanity
17. Cruelty to the Indispensible
18. To kill, to display, and to love . . .
Book Extracts and Table of Contents
From Chapter 8: “Average Joes”
The southern Sahara Desert, winter, 5000 B.C.E. Four emaciated donkeys plod steadily along the pebbly trail. Heads slightly down, heavily laden, they look neither to left nor right at the featureless aridity on either side. Firewood and water: the donkeys carry heaped bundles of dried shrubs or leather water bags suspended on either side of their coarse saddle blankets, collected at a small oasis over the horizon. The wizened, skin-clad women and their beasts find their way with subtle landmarks like a long dried up watercourse, a large boulder, or an unusually conspicuous dune. Familiar signposts to people born to desert life, but the travelers never relax. It’s easy to get lost in this featureless landscape of sand, gravel, and boulders. The small caravan picks its way across the desert, its destination a large clump of palm trees barely visible on the horizon, where the cattle graze. The herders’ traditions tell of better watered times in the past, when springs and shallow lakes abounded and the people moved over short distances. For generations since, humans and their animals have ranged far and wide for sustenance, relying on their donkeys to bring water and firewood to temporary camps . . . .
Quite when and where people domesticated donkeys remains somewhat of a mystery. One likely ancestor is the now nearly extinct African wild ass, Equus africanus. Most likely, wild asses were tamed in several areas of North Africa, one of which was the Sahara, where the donkey’s unique qualities came into play at a time of increasingly erratic rainfall and much greater aridity, after about 5,000 B.C.E.
For thousands of years after the Ice Age, the Sahara enjoyed regular, if sparse, rainfall. The desert supported broad tracts of semiarid grassland. Shallow lakes, springs, and oases provided ample water supplies for hunters and later for cattle herders. By at least 6000 B.C.E., probably earlier, hunters in the southern Egyptian desert and to the west had domesticated Bos primigenius, the formidable wild ox. They lived off their herds, also off game and wild plant foods. Both grazing and water supplies were dependable enough that the herders could survive comfortably within relatively limited areas.
Life was good, until the Sahara began to dry up around 5000 B.C.E. Both grazing and water became harder to find except in widely scattered locations across the arid landscape. Instead of staying in small territories, the herders now followed food and water, which meant they had to cover long distances and move at frequent intervals. Cattle are demanding beasts, for they dehydrate easily and require water at least once a day, especially in hot environments like the Sahara. Each group would have relied heavily on younger men, who would have moved adult beasts to outlying grazing and water supplies. They also turned to the donkey to transport families, firewood, and other essentials.
No one knows how Saharan pastoralists, and others, first tamed donkeys, but it was perhaps a consequence of seasonal corralling of wild asses. The practice was still commonplace throughout the Saharan Sahel, the southern margins of the desert, as recently as the nineteenth century and is still used with reindeer by the Saami of Lapland. Perhaps domestication began with young animals, who bred in their corrals and became familiar with human behavior. Perhaps, too, they were first tamed for their meat and milk, both little used today. However, those who corralled them soon became aware of the donkey’s remarkable qualities that were perfectly adapted to an existence in increasingly dry environments.
Donkeys with their efficient gait walk faster than cattle, especially in rugged terrain. These qualities alone offered huge advantages to cattle people confronted with the need for much greater mobility, with regular journeys of many kilometers to grazing grounds now widely separated over the landscape and to increasingly elusive water supplies. There were other advantages, too. Donkeys have labile body temperatures, tolerate desiccation readily, to the point that they can be trained to expect water only every two or three days. They dehydrate more slowly than cattle and rehydrate rapidly, do not need to rest for rumination and can digest food while dehydrated. The donkey is said to be relatively easy to train, and, above all, is a consummate load carrier.
Firewood and water, domestic possessions, young children and animals—all were suitable for a donkey back. In many of today’s societies, donkeys are considered “women’s animals”, used for domestic tasks, animals of lower status than cattle, sheep, or goats, which had important social roles in herding societies. But they were the load carriers of Saharan cattle herding. They carried things over an enormous area of northern Africa, the Sahara, and, soon, further afield.
Donkeys of the Pharaohs
At some point, these utilitarian pack animals came into use in the Nile Valley. Whether this was the result of pastoral groups moving to the edges of the settled lands along the river, or because the Egyptians domesticated donkeys independently, we don’t know. The earliest Nile Valley donkey bones come from villages in the Nile Delta and in the northern Sudan by at least 4000 B.C.E. Donkeys appear at the small town of Maadi, now on the outskirts of an expanding Cairo, during the first half of the fourth millennium. This important settlement was a key link in a major trade network that brought commodities from the eastern Mediterranean coastal region, and perhaps even from Mesopotamia, to the Nile.
Contacts between people living inside and outside the Nile Valley expanded dramatically after about 3500 B.C.E., both through river trade and over neighboring deserts using caravans of pack animals. Within a thousand years, donkeys appear in inscriptions and wall paintings. By then, they were in common use as beasts of burden, even, on occasion, buried near pharaohs.
Abydos, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) south of Cairo, is the burial place of the earliest pharaohs of about 5,000 years ago. A great embayment of cliffs provides a dramatic setting on the west bank of the Nile. Royal tombs and mortuary enclosures surrounded by high status burials commemorate the departed kings in a symbolic landscape associated with the legendary Osiris, ruler of the realm of the dead. One ruler’s tomb lay close to some lion burials, an ancient symbol of kingship. Fourteen large funerary boats accompanied another enclosure, ready for the journey to the Other World. One of the very early rulers went to eternity accompanied by donkeys, laid to rest adjacent to his funerary enclosure. Unfortunately, we don’t know who he was.
Ten donkeys lay in three carefully prepared brick tombs with wood and masonry roofs. Each beast lay on its left side on a reed mat, as carefully buried as high officials. The donkeys were apparently in good health and well looked after but the cartilage of their major joints at hip and shoulder display signs of heavy wear from overloading. The same areas display signs of arthritis, also caused by load carrying. Why did the mourners lavish such care on dead, or sacrificed, beasts? Presumably their importance came from their qualities as pack animals, capable of surviving on little water and poor forage as they tramped across arid terrain carrying precious loads for the king.
The Abydos donkeys were larger and finer limbed than today’s familiar beasts. They display some features of domesticated donkeys, others of wild asses. However, the pathological conditions of their backs clearly identify them as domesticated pack animals, the earliest unequivocal evidence for human use of such animals anywhere, even if we know from fragmentary bones that donkeys were in use along the Nile earlier. The physical changes and smaller size of the donkey developed over many centuries, among other things making them slower than the revered beasts at Abydos.