Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Economics and Assery (Shai et al, 2016)

Here's an interesting paper on the importance of the ass in the developing Near Eastern World Economy.  Before I get to the paper, let's start by asking a simple question.

Based on the morphology of horses in Western Europe in the Early Bronze Age, is it possible that many of the unrefined tarpan-like domestic horses are in-fact hinnies or mules?  I'm not sure a tarpan or hinny are distinguishable from the skeleton or teeth alone because they are very similar, but we do know that 1) morphologically modern horses were present 2)  asses were also present before disappearing again.*

Generally, it is in the Beaker period that horses begin appearing in Western Europe before exponentiating rapidly in the Bronze Age.  (Davis, 1987)
Donkeys from Tomb of Ti, 5th Dynasty (2,500-2,300 B.C.)

We have seen unequivocal genetic proof that the ass was present in Chalcolithic Iberia (Cardoso et al, 2013) and there should be reasonable certainty that this misplaced Iberian beast was a domestic work and trade animal.  Within the context of Iberian trade networks reaching into Continental Europe, the importance of proving the existence of this animal at this location/time period cannot be underscored enough.

The authors of this paper examine the surprisingly deep domestic history of the ass, but also consider the physical stress indicators that point to the ass being used as a pack animal.  They stress the importance of this animal in the formation of a sophisticated economy that allowed commodities to be moved with greater efficiency.

Another interesting facet to the Shai et al case is the architectural implications in ancient Near Eastern cities for accommodating a donkey with a pack.  This may be true as well for some of the passageways of walled enclosures of Portugal.    

The Importance of the Donkey as a Pack Animal in the Early Bronze Age Southern Levant:
A View from Tell es-Safi/ Gath

By Itzhaq Shai, Haskel J. Greenfield, Annie Brown, Shira Albaz and Aren M. Maeir
Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palastinas
(2016) [Link]

In this paper, we review the evidence for the use of the domestic donkey as a mode of transportation in the Early Bronze Age. The study will present the domestic donkey remains (artefactual and zoological) and their archaeological context from the Early Bronze Age III domestic neighborhood at Tell esSafi/ Gath. The remains indicate the significant role that donkeys played in the daily life of the inhabitants. This reflects on our understanding of their role in the trade networks and mode of transportation that existed within the emerging urban cultures in the southern Levant during the 3rd mill. B.C.E.
* It could be that the ass periodically fell out of favor due to innovations and circumstances that kept making it obsolete in Europe.  These could be the improvement or availability of roads, bridges, carts, wagons, shipping, shepherd dogs, ponies, draught horses and fields.

Conversely, as the lion and wolf population dwindled and Europe became less wild, attacks on livestock [this post] became less common.  The frugal mid-line browsing donkey is less desirable as Europe is deforested.  Basically it's a case of having the awesome skills but in the wrong job.


  1. I think there's a fascinating parallel between the horse and the spread of Indo European languages and the donkey and the spread of the northern Afroasiatic languages; Semitic, Egyptian, Berber and Cushitic. In the case of Afroasiatic, the role of the donkey as a pack animal facilitating trade enabled the spread of these languages through large areas and ultimately replacing the earlier languages of the Neolithic. The donkey also made possible the pastoralist way of life, allowing for the exploitation of the extensive amount of semi arid lands in the Middle East.

    1. That makes sense. The bigger and more intense those networks become the more important a common communication becomes.