Over 50,000 years ago a Neanderthal hunter approached a wild ass on the plains of northeastern Syria. Taking aim from the right as the animal nervously assessed the threat, he launched his stone-tipped spear into its neck, penetrating the third cervical vertebra and paralyzing it immediately. Butchered at the kill site, this bone and most of the rest of the animal were taken back to the hunter’s camp at Umm el Tlel, a short distance away. Closely modelled on archaeological observations of that vertebra and the Levallois stone point still embedded within it, this incident helps define the framework for this chapter. At the start of the period it covers, human interactions with the donkey’s ancestors were purely a matter of hunting wild prey, but by its end the donkey had been transformed into a domesticated animal. Chapter 2 thus looks at how this process came about, where it did so, and what the evolutionary history of the donkey’s forebears had been until that point. Donkeys and the wild asses that are their closest relatives form part of the equid family to which zebras and horses also belong. Collectively, equids, like rhinoceroses and tapirs, fall within the Perissodactyla, the odd-toed division of hoofed mammals or ungulates. Though this might suggest a close connection with the much larger order known as the Artiodactyla, the even-toed antelopes (including deer, cattle, sheep, and goats), their superficial resemblances may actually reflect evolutionary convergence; some genetic studies hint that perissodactyls are more closely related to carnivores. Like tapirs and rhinoceroses, the earliest equids had three toes, not the one that has characterized them for the past 40 million years. That single toe, the third, now bears all their weight in the form of a single, enlarged hoof with the adjacent toes reduced to mere splints. This switch, and the associated elongation of the third (or central) metapodial linking the toe to the wrist or ankle, is one of the key evolutionary transformations through which equids have passed. A second involves diet since the earliest perissodactyls were all browsers, not grazers like the equids of today.
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