Domestic Donkeys May Have Worn Bits As Early As 5,000 Years Ago

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An analysis of a complete skeleton of an early domestic donkey from the Early Bronze Age (2800-2600 BC) deposits at the site of the Biblical city ‘Gath of the Philistines’ (modern Tell es-Safi) in central Israel demonstrates that the animal was being ridden or managed with the use of a dental bit.

Domestic donkeys were being ridden and controlled with bits during the early 3rd millennium BC in the southern Levant, very soon after they were domesticated in the late 4th millennium in northeast Africa. Image credit: Open Clipart Vectors.

Domestic donkeys were being ridden and controlled with bits during the early 3rd millennium BC in the southern Levant, very soon after they were domesticated in the late 4th millennium in northeast Africa. Image credit: Open Clipart Vectors.

Donkeys (Equus asinus) are known to be used as beasts of burden, transporting goods in the Near East at the end of the 4th and beginning of the early 3rd millennium BC. However, little is known about the history of riding donkeys during this early period.

A bit is often used while riding to allow the rider more control over the animal, as opposed to a tether or nose ring which can simply prevent an animal from wandering, or lead an animal to a new location. Wear and tear on the teeth are often used as a proxy to identify whether or not a bit was worn.

A research team led by University of Manitoba’s Professor Haskel Greenfield excavated an ancient domestic donkey sealed beneath the courtyard of a house at Tell es-Safi /Gath.

The scientists used radiocarbon dating to estimate that the domestic donkey was likely buried around 2700 BC.

Using microscopy, they examined the donkey’s teeth, finding that the tooth enamel had been worn down on the Lower Premolar 2 (LPM2) in an uneven fashion that is indicative of bit wear.

Normal tooth wear has been identified as more even and polished, yet the beveled surfaces on both of the LPM2 teeth specifically suggest that a bit may have been worn to control the donkey.

The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, suggest that donkeys may have worn bits in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium, long before the arrival of the horse.

“This is significant because it demonstrates how early domestic donkeys were controlled, and adds substantially to our knowledge of the history of donkey domestication and evolution of riding and equestrian technology,” Professor Greenfield said.

“It is also significant that it was discovered on the remains of an early domestic donkey that was sacrificed probably as an offering to protect what we interpret to be a merchant domestic residence uncovered during our excavations.”

“The use of a bridle bit on a donkey during this period is surprising, since it was commonly assumed that donkeys were controlled with nose rings, as depicted in Mesopotamian art,” added co-author Professor Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University.

The team proposes that the wear on the tooth of the donkey was made with a soft bit, likely made from rope or wood.

“Only later, from the Middle Bronze Age and onward (after 2000 BC), was it thought that bits, in particular metal bits, were used — first with horses that were introduced to the Near East at the time, and subsequently with other equids, such as donkeys. Examples of these later bits were found in Israel at Tel Haror,” Professor Maeir said.

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H.J. Greenfield et al. 2018. Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel. PLoS ONE 13 (5): e0196335; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0196335