BMCR 2019.10.20

The Donkey in Human History: An Archaeological Perspective

, The Donkey in Human History: An Archaeological Perspective. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiv, 306;16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780198749233 $85.00.


Donkeys get little or no respect. Books are written about horses and camels, but—alas—the donkey and the mule are generally ignored. Page 1 of Mitchell’s highly readable book gives a summary of his view of the “first marked improvement on human portage” (p. 35).

“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.”

ORIGINS: Mitchell starts with a 39-page discussion of the biology of the creature from its wild ass origins to its present-day shape and variants (mules) and how efficiently it can survive on minimal water intake and fodder of poor nutritional quality and how far it sometimes has to travel in order to do so. Seventy years ago I rode on donkeys without realizing why the saddle had to be placed so far back, practically on its hindquarters. Mitchell explains why.

ALONG AND BEYOND THE NILE (36 sites on the map, p. 41): “If, as Herodotus stated, Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then it is a gift delivered largely by donkeys” as far back as Dynasties 1, 2, and 3. The sites include many with mineral or ore deposits, many in the Eastern and Western Deserts a long way (up to 900 km.) away from the Nile where donkey bones and dung have been found. Tens of thousands of donkeys were involved in this long-distance trade. Seneb may have owned as many as 12,017 of them.

THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST (53 sites on the map, p. 73): This deals with the organization of trade, legitimization of kingship, and religion. Donkeys carried tons of tin and copper from Kanesh and other Anatolian sites to Assur in exchange for textiles. A caravan could have 300 donkeys carrying some 27 tons of metal. One reference is to a caravan of 3000 donkeys from Mari, and other references from Kanesh imply that by 1900 BC not having a donkey was a sign of dire poverty. Various practices at Umm el-Marra (ceremonial), Tel Haror (religious), Ugarit (sacrifice), and Tell es-Safi (foundation deposit), among others, show that there was much more to a donkey than just its being the container truck of its day. The mule, possibly the animal called a perdum, makes its appearance, valued in the Kanesh texts four times more highly than a donkey, and Hittite texts suggest that a single mule was worth the same as three horses, six oxen, or sixty sheep. When the Israelites returned from Babylon in the mid-fifth century, they brought with them (or perhaps they were brought by) 245 mules, 6720 donkeys, and 736 horses.

THE CLASSICAL WORLD (22 sites on the map, p. 117): Although Cicero observed that it would be unduly tedious to enumerate the services of donkeys, Mitchell provides an instructive set of tallies: Small—Cato on how to manage landed estates: three donkeys to carry manure for fertilizer to the olive groves, and one to work the olive press, or two to plough between the vine rows plus another for pressing the grapes. Medium—A Roman legion may have needed some 1400 mules plus more for the wagons that carried the artillery. Sulla amassed over 20,000 when besieging Athens. Enormous—Statistics from the Oxyrhynchus papyri show that some 63,000 donkey loads per year were required to bring in 4070 tons of wheat to feed the 30,000 inhabitants plus additional animals to grind it in the bakeries.

An instructive table (5.3 on page 133) gives the comparative potential force and power for six portage and draught animals. A donkey yields only 35% of 1 horsepower. A mule provides 70%. Another table (5.2 on page 131) on the comparative performance of animals using a packsaddle (load, distance in km. per day, and total load transported per day in kg.) would have been equally useful, but the OUP formatters deleted a number of crucial numbers (hundreds or thousands, and even then the numbers do not quite add up) so that understanding the table is largely guesswork.

Speaking of formatting: in the text on page 135 a “ceramic [plaque] attributed to the sixth-century B.C. painter Exekias (Figure 5.15)” refers instead to a late fourth-century tombstone from Paestum (“a two-wheeled-cart pulled by two mules” in the caption). Figure 5.16 in the text “illustrating a single mule pulling a two-wheeled vehicle” refers instead to an image from Budapest, captioned “Tombstone of Septimius Colonus Attusonius” and displaying the wheel of his mule-cart. Something got scrambled here.

“Mules and Donkeys in Greco-Roman Thought” ends this chapter with reflections on the quasi-invisibility of donkeys, mentioned once in Homer, never in Hesiod, only occasionally in Aristophanes. Herodotus does better by the donkey, perhaps a reflection of his non-elite background, and so does Aesop. When donkeys are depicted, the emphasis is “on work or indulging in eating, drinking, and sex.” When mentioned in Greek proverbs, they are “inferior, obstinate, promiscuous, incapable of higher culture, and appropriate targets for physical chastisement.” To BMCR readers who have heard Greeks, Turks, or Arabs curse each other as donkeys or sons thereof, this should sound familiar.

THE TRIUMPH OF THE MULE (49 sites on the map of the medieval world, p. 159; the Old World with 18 sites from Chang’an (Xi’an) to Cubalel in Senegal on the map on p. 181; and NEW WORLDS FOR THE DONKEY (28 sites on the New World map, p. 190):

The last 1300 years of donkey/mule history are summed up in 75 pages spanning 5 continents which means we must move to a gallop. Readers who like tallying-up numbers and threshing through disparate bits of evidence will love this. Let us start with the Old World.

p.166 6th/7th century Byzantine roads in Anatolia have no wheel ruts. Thus, donkeys were the carriers.

p.168 R. Bagnall notes that Late Roman documents from Egypt mention donkeys 143 times, camels 79 times, horses 50 times, wagons 20 times.

p.169 in Fez as late as 1994 when its population was 285,000 there was 1 equid for every 13 families, just over half of them donkeys and 37% mules.

p.169 in Malta, ca. 1240: three castles employed 18 donkeys and horses plus three horses to operate their seven mills.

p.169 Goethe on Naples “No garden could exist without a donkey.”

p.173 High-value, low bulk items moved back and forth across the Alps on donkey back: spices, pigments, silk, and incense northbound; wool, linen, canvas, tin, and Frankish swords southbound.

p. 175 F. Braudel on Spain: “the land of mule trains,” 60,000 mules were used in the siege of Granada in 1491.

p.175, fn. 118: S. Faroqhi notes a 17 th century record of 3000 donkey-drivers in Cairo alone.

p.182 The Silk Road: heavy use of donkeys over long distances across Eurasia. Horses and carts were used only over short distances.

p.185 Donkeys are used even now to transport salt and straw in the N and W African deserts. In Ethiopia donkeys transport 50kg. of salt 160 km, and climb 3000 m. The Salt Road, less famous than the Silk Road, is 400km. from the Sahara to the Sahel, not an easy traverse. Salt is carried one way, grain in return.

p.186 “Although we lack anything as dramatic as the tonne of copper and brass ingots abandoned when the camel caravan carrying them…disappeared in the Mauritanian desert in the twelfth century, archaeology documents the arrival and use…of these and other goods” in the range accessible by donkeys. (Reviewer’s quibble: if Mitchell wants a single instance of real drama, he might try the Uluburun shipwreck with some 18 tons of copper and a ton of tin.)

Now the New World:

p.187 Vast numbers of donkeys were needed to transport gold and silver from mines to centers of consumption. (Reviewer’s note: Jerome, a famous copper-mining center in NW Arizona but now a ghost-town, sits in a 2-million-acre national forest. Were the trees used to smelt the millions of tons of copper? No. Instead, in the 19 th century, sailing ships brought tons of coke from England around Cape Horn to San Francisco. The coke was brought by train to Flagstaff and then by mule some 45 miles over rough country to Jerome. Lacking the documentary evidence, we would find this scenario unbelievable.)

p.192: Spanish-controlled mines generated at least 150,000 tons of silver from the mid-1500s to 1810 or some 80% of total global production. (We all know about the treasure ships, but we ignore how the 150,000 tons got from mine to harbor.) Potosi, Bolivia is a good example: at 4000m. altitude and with a population of 160,000. Foodstuffs and equipment needed to be brought up and silver taken down over an ~800km route to Cuzco and Arequipa (Peru) or the ~500km. route over the Andes to Arica (Chile).

p.194: F. Braudel estimates that as many as 500,000 donkeys were present in Peru and Bolivia by the 1770s, with two million across Latin America as a whole.

p.203: There were over five million mules in the USA as late as 1922.

p.205: Statistics for 1981: Over 3 million mules and 3 million donkeys in Mexico, mostly used in ploughing and as all-purpose beasts of burden.

p.217: By 2000 Botswana had around 235,000 donkeys, or one for every seven people, the highest ratio in the world.

p.218: Figure 7.14 by implication in the text shows “100 donkeys pulling a single cart.” Rather, what we are shown is a convoy of pack-donkeys.

What this list tells us is that the last millennium and a half of what we call Western Civilization has a lot to do with the humble donkey and mule, even though they get no credit for it.

THE DONKEY’S TALE, Mitchell’s final chapter, begins with a quote from Eeyore: “That Accounts for a Good Deal” (and then some). Donkeys and mules extended the geographical reach of human societies, providing both motive and draught power. Bruce Trigger has estimated that draught animals may have reduced the human labor needed to grow grain by as much as half. Mitchell even provides (p.235) a periodization of world history for the last 7,500 years from a donkey’s point of view. Mitchell’s closing note (p.243) is that further studies combining palaeopathological studies with methods such as stable isotope and DNA analysis will mean that the Equus asinus will no longer be the “forgotten equid” whom no one counts. (I have seen donkey bones discarded on a number of excavations on the grounds that they were “only donkeys.”) A 47-page bibliography from classical authors to today shows us where we might begin.

This book belongs on every excavator’s shelf and should be required reading for any students planning to participate in fieldwork. The many examples detailed above may not be from your particular period of interest, but almost every BMCR reader will be familiar with at least one of the sites. They are food for thought, and if you are in Lombardy or at any Slow Food festival in Italy and are offered stufato d’asino at lunchtime, go ahead and try it, following the ancient custom.

PHILOLOGICAL QUERY: Mitchell says (p.149) “The conventional interpretation that Christ’s choice of a donkey was an act of personal humility is also wrong. In the first place, the term (‘ânî) translated as ‘lowly’ in the KJV (or as ‘humble’ or ‘righteous’ in other versions) does not mean ‘meek’. Instead, it is a royal quality, meaning someone who is subservient and respectful to his god, one associated in the OT with Moses and claimed by the Syrian king Zakkur in an inscription of the early eighth century BC.” Scott Noegel, one of the authors cited, emails me as follows: “In Aramaic it is ענה. The expression there reads אש ענה אנה ‘I am a ענה man.’ As in Hebrew, it can mean several things. I am a ‘humble’ man, ‘lowly,’ ‘of humble origin.’” I lack access to the other references. Can any BMCR readers let me know whether Mitchell is correct or whether he is being overly enthusiastic about the donkey?