The Pickup Trucks of History

515PfzMa2JLFrom the Editors: We’re pleased to present this excerpt from Brian Fagan’s, The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History (Bloomsbury 2015), which explores the historic — and fascinating — relationships between people and animals.

Four thousand years ago, no one living along the Nile or in eastern Mediterranean lands would have given a laden donkey a second glance. A nineteenth century English traveler in Syria remarked of the beast, “It will maintain an easy trot and canter for hours without flagging, and always gains on the horse up the hills or on the broken ground.”

Obdurate, certainly on occasion troublesome, these versatile beasts linked cities and civilizations over thousands of kilometers of arid, often rugged terrain. There was little glamor attached to donkeys in the early days. They were the ancient equivalent of pickup trucks long before they became marks of rank and dignity. We’ve forgotten that these self-effacing beasts helped create the first truly global world. They linked the Euphrates with the Mediterranean, the Upper Tigris with Central Turkey, quietly broke down Egypt’s geographical and cultural isolation, and provisioned military campaigns. A more powerful instrument of globalization is hard to imagine.

Donkey caravans connected courts and cities long before Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaohs cast their eyes on more distant lands. The tempo of long distance trade, of globalized commerce, picked up dramatically throughout Southwest Asia after the nineteenth century B.C.E. Caravan trails led from coastal cities like Ugarit and Tyre on the Mediterranean coast to the Euphrates and Tigris.

Donkey routes linked Egypt and the Levant. Virtually everywhere, the terrain was rough, the trails narrow and sometimes hazardous. Only donkeys, heavy ox carts, or human porters could carry loads from city to inland city, until the introduction of the camel in the centuries before Christ. The sheer volume of the mercantile caravan trade turned the donkey into a major economic asset, an instrument of widespread prosperity. Gifts for rulers, mundane commodities like textiles or salt, mining caravans using hundreds of beasts—loads of all kinds traversed desert and river valley alike in a world where urban economies were becoming more interdependent, more global.

Some respect for these humble beasts developed as well. They  served a small but well documented ritual part in an increasingly complex mercantile and political world. Numerous examples of donkey burials lie with the graves of high status individuals or warriors. They occur in pairs, even occasionally in larger numbers, their bones sometimes disarticulated as if they were part of ritual feasts or sacrifices. Judging from Egypt’s Abydos burials, such sacrifices were symbolic of wealth and economic power.

One well-documented donkey burial lies in the heart of the sacred precinct at Tel Haror, a city near Gaza in modern-day Israel dating to around 1700 to 1550 B.C.E. The 4-year-old donkey, a young beast, came to light in a temple courtyard, lying on its left side, its limbs neatly bent. A well-worn, defective copper bridle bit was still in its jaws, but it was just placed in the animal’s mouth. There are no signs from the teeth that the donkey was ever ridden or carried loads, but the bit gives it a special status, a beast too young to be trained for caravan use. Significantly, too, copper fittings for saddle bags survive on either side of the ribs, again a symbolic acknowledgement of the importance of donkeys in the economic lives of the rich and powerful.

But they were mainly economic assets. The impatient, aggressive Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, who first made extensive use of donkeys 4,500 years ago, portrayed them as slow, stubborn animals. One saying, preserved on a cuneiform tablet, remarks that donkeys ate their own bedding. Another owner rebuked his donkey for not running fast, but merely braying. (The loud and prolonged bray was an excellent adaptation for arid landscapes, where wild asses were often widely separated.) In later times, the Jewish Wisdom of Sirach of the second century B.C.E. talks of “Fodder and a stick and burdens for the ass; bread and discipline and work for a servant.” Even when ridden, donkeys were humble beasts, witness the prophet Zachariah, who portrayed Israel’s future king as arriving not on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” Some donkeys denoted dignity and prestige. In Judges, the prophetess Deborah addressed the judges: “Speak ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment.” For the most part, however, donkeys were the proletariat of the ancient animal world.

About Brian Fagan

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author of Beyond the Blue Horizon, Elixir, the Los Angeles Times bestseller, Cro-Magnon, The New York Times bestseller, The Great Warming, among others. Originally from Lyme Regis, Dorset, and a graduate of Cambridge University, Fagan lives in Santa Barbara.
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