Donkeys carried Christ into Jerusalem, transported the Greek god Dionysus to his childhood home on Mount Nysa and into battle against the Giants, and provided a mount for Muhammad, who supposedly used it to summon his companions. Long before the arrival of the horse, they were ridden by kings in the Near East, buried near Egypt’s first pharaohs, and sacrificed to ancient gods across the Fertile Crescent and as far beyond it as Baluchistan and Badajoz. Along with their hybrid offspring, the mule, donkeys formed—and in places still form—a core technology for moving goods at both local and international levels, especially in areas of rugged or mountainous terrain: agricultural produce throughout the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, and beyond; tin and wool for Bronze Age merchants between Assyria and Anatolia; supplies for the Roman army; New World silver to Caribbean ports for shipment to Spain; salt in contemporary and medieval Ethiopia; household necessities and even the dead in the modern Moroccan city of Fez. Their muscles ground flour in the Classical Mediterranean, powered water wheels in Islamic Andalucía, and helped deliver stone columns from Egypt’s deserts to build the Pantheon in Rome. Today, they remain a critical resource for many of the world’s poor, their use promoted by numerous development projects. At the same time, conservation authorities in places as distant from each other as Australia and the United States seek to control the numbers of feral donkeys using means that pose impossible-to-resolve ethical questions. And yet, for most twenty-first-century individuals in the Western world, donkeys are among the least considered of the animals that people have domesticated. Tellingly, for example, a recent overview of the archaeology of animals completely omits them, while nevertheless including the Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), a tree-nesting bird kept by Pre-Columbian Native Americans, in its table of ‘major domestic animals’. Rarely seen and even more rarely eaten, donkeys are perhaps met with on foreign holidays or encountered as unusual companion animals, participants in school Christmas celebrations, or seaside attractions for small children.
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