Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Guard Donkey

In parts of the United States it's common practice to mix 2-3 donkeys with goats and sheep, and sometimes cattle in wilder terrain.  An alert jenny or gelding will stomp a number of mid-size predators, but especially any and all things canidae.  How herds are managed in wild modern environments may help illuminate how the earliest ruminant herds were managed in a wilder world.

Buck the Donkey (Georgia Outdoor News)

The last post on the early outlier horses in the Czech Republic brings up a question about how horses and donkeys came to be domesticated.  Some animal theorists have reckoned that domestication of horses began as the exploitation of horses as a food source.

This is problematic because the improvements made in horses and donkeys of the early millennia do not suggest features for milk and meat production.  If you compared jungle fowl and Orpington chickens, it's clear that Orpington hens are bred to mature fast, lay an unfertilized egg a day and then go in the fry pan.  No feature suggests horses were at any time developed for meat or milk production (although they were eaten often).

The fact that members of equidae were domesticated in at least two different regions by people practicing early husbandry questions how the employment of horses might have led to their eventual domestication and to the inevitability of horse domestication given the social relationship between many equids to boviae.

Wildabeests and Zebra on the Serengeti (Safari Bookings)
Many members of equidae and bovidae (which also includes sheep and goats) are naturally tolerant of each other.  On the Serengeti where the two often herd together, it's a sort of evolutionary symbiosis where zebras will stomp predators from the canidae family, thus unintentionally protecting wildebeest calves.  Wildebeests have sacrificial numbers that allow zebra cover to run from larger threats like lions.  Certainly not all bovidae and equidae behave like this in the wild, but ibexes and ongurs would seem to have some vestigial instincts of the their respective ruminant families.

As the first goat-ropers began expanding from the Zargos with sheep and goats, predation would have been one of their biggest concerns, not just from wolves and cougars, but also from roaming packs of wild dogs.  A thin argument has been made on the basis of mtdna that ass domestication occurred in Northeast Africa [link]; regardless if this is correct or not, it's curious that donkeys appear within the timeframe goats first appear in Egypt and, if indeed donkey domestication did occur the Nile region, then it surely came within the cultural frame of goat herding.

In a place such as the North Pontic-Caspian Steppe, it's possible that from the beginning wild horses were gravitating toward domestic cattle herds on the landscape.  In other words, the natural disposition and social structure of horses meant that they were hovering in domestic cattle pastures just as they would around aurochs millennia before and that their presence was tolerated (or actually preferred) by cattle owners.  This doesn't mean horses are fond of cattle, but the constant howling in the night of the Pontic Steppe might have been a powerful motivator to stand in a auroch or cattle herd.

"Chisolm Trail" by Robert Lindneux
Although a stallion only lurks in the margins to protect his harem, the first step in domestication is for man to kill the stallion.  This allows humans to get close to the alpha mare and her followers.  This is also potentially an important step in the evolution of cattle management for this reason...

It's generally an established fact that the wildebeest masses are led by the zebras.  Theoretically, the Great Migration on the Serengeti would be led by pockets of alpha mares and their harems followed by retarded wildebeests.  This is certainly true for a jenny followed by goats or sheep.  Moving a large herd of domestic cattle may have been aided by a mobile pastoralist moving a dominant and loyal mare.  It's easy to see why people would want to harness horses to begin with.

So is the domestication of the horse tied to cattle and donkeys to goats?  In the Lindneux painting above, the cowboy sits on his horse as cattle cross a river.  If humans were totally removed from the painting, would we still see an image similar to this in the Pleistocene Near East?

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