DONKEY ii. Domestication in Iran



ii. Domestication in Iran

The domestication of the African ass (Equus africanus) and the development of the donkey (Equus asinus) for transport and traction have been discussed in the scholarly literature for many years.  Traditionally, North Africa, more specifically pre-Dynastic Egypt, has been considered the most likely locus of domestication (Clutton-Brock, p. 91; Burleigh; Groves; Gilbert et al.; Burleigh et al.; Rossell et al.).  However, despite alleged DNA evidence in support of an African origin (Beja-Pereira et al.), there are good reasons to doubt this theory.  To begin with, it is now known that the original range of Equid africanus extended well beyond North Africa, as osteological material from sites in Syria (Ducos; Vila, 2006), eastern Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Iraqi Jazirah, and the Zagros foothills (Uerpmann, p. 29) attest.  The earliest Egyptian evidence of donkey, from El-Omari, dates to ca. 4600-4400 BC) (Boessneck and von den Driesch, pp. 99-101) while in Iraq and Syria domesticated donkey appeared during the Late Uruk period (ca. 3600-3100 BCE) at Uruk (Boessneck et al., p. 166), Tell Rubeidheh (Payne, pp. 99-100), and Habuba Kabira (Strommenger and Bollweg, pp. 354-55).

Contemporary or even slightly older material has been excavated in Iran at Godin Tepe (qv.; Gilbert, pp. 98-99) in central Zagos and Tepe Qabrestān (Ghabristan) south of Qazvin, where the relevant contexts have calibrated radiocarbon dates of ca. 3780-3050 (Mashkour et al., Table 2).  In addition, a painted ceramic sherd (TNP 1331) from level A19 at Tol-e Nurābād in the Mamasani district of western Fars shows what appears to be a long-eared donkey with a saddle blanket or saddle bag on its back (Figure 1).  The sherd is made of a fine, light brown ware, and is decorated with brown paint.  It belongs broadly to the Bākun painted pottery tradition, named after the type site of Tal-e Bākun in the Marvdašt plain (Weeks et al.).  The context in which it was found is well dated by radiocarbon dates from the levels immediately above and below it to about 4780-4490 BC (Potts, 2011, p. 169).

Potentially contemporary with or even earlier than the earliest evidence of donkey domestication in Egypt, the Tol-e Nurābād sherd raises many questions about the locus of donkey domestication in the Old World, particularly since the Zagros highlands, where it was discovered, have been considered well to the east of the original range of Equid africanus.  The economic advantages of using donkeys, both for transport and traction, are clear, and the animal very probably played a role in the expansion of settlement on the Iranian Plateau during the 5th and 4th millennia BCE.



Albano Beja-Pereira et al., “African Origins of the Domestic Donkey,” Science 304, 2004, p. 1781.

J. Boessneck and A. von den Driesch, “Animal Bones,” in Fernand Debono and Bodil Mortensen, eds., El Omari: A Neolithic Settlement and Other Sites in the Vicinity of Wadi Hof, Helwan, Mainz, 1990, pp. 99-101.

J. Boessneck, A. von den Driesch, and U. Steger, “Tierknochenfunde der Ausgrabungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Baghdad in Uruk-Warka, Iraq,” Baghdader Mitteilungen 15, 1984, pp. 149-89.

Richard Burleigh, “Chronology of Some Early Domestic Equids in Egypt and Western Asia,” in Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., I, pp. 230-36.

Richard Burleigh, Juliet Clutton-Brock, and John Gowlett, “Early Domestic Equids in Egypt and Western Asia: An Additional Note,” in Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., II, pp. 9-11.

Juliet Clutton-Brock, Domesticated Animals from Early Times, Austin and London, 1981.

Pierre Ducos, “A New Find of An Equid Metatarsal Bone from Tell Mureibet in Syria, and Its Relevance to the Identification of Equids from the Early Holocene of the Levant,” Journal of Archaeological Science 2, 1975, pp. 71-73.

Allan S. Gilbert, “Equid Remains from Godin Tepe, Western Iran: An Interim Summary and Interpretation, with Notes on the Introduction of the Horse into Southwest Asia,” in Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., II, pp. 75-112.

Allan S. Gilbert, Jerold M. Lowenstein, and Brian C. Hesse, “Biochemical Differentiation of Archaeological Equid Remains: Lessons from A First Attempt,” Journal of Field Archaeology 17, 1990, pp. 39-48.

C. P. Groves, “The Taxonomy, Distribution, and Adaptations of Recent Equids,” in Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., I, pp. 11-66.

M. Mashkour, M. Fontugne, and C. Hatte, “Investigations on the Evolution of Subsistence Economy in the Qazvin Plain (Iran) from the Neolithic to the Iron Age,” Antiquity 73, 1999, pp. 65-76.

Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., Equids in the Ancient World, 2 vols., Wiesbaden, 1986-91.

Sebastian Payne, “Animal Bones from Tell Rubeidheh,” in R. G. Killick and T. C. Young, eds., Tell Rubeidheh: An Uruk Village in the Jebel Hamrin, Baghdad, 1988, pp. 98-145.

Daniel T. Potts, “Equus asinus in Highland Iran: Evidence Old and New,” in Between Sand and Sea: The Archaeology and Human Ecology of Southwestern Asia: Festschrift in Honor of Hans-Peter Uerpmann, Tübingen, 2011, pp. 167-75.

S. Rossel et al., “Domestication of the Donkey: Timing, Processes, and Indicators,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105, 2008, pp. 3715-720.

E. Strommenger and J. Bollweg, “Onager und Esel im alten Zentralvorderasien,” in Hermann Gashe and Barthel Hrouda eds., Collectanea Orientalia: Histoire, arts de l'espace et industrie de la terre: Etudes offerts en hommage à Agnès Spycket, Neuchâtel 1996, pp. 349-66.

Hans-Peter Uerpmann, “Equus africanus in Arabia?,” in Richard H. Meadow and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds., II, pp. 12-33. 

E. Vila, “Data on Equids from Late Fourth and Third Millennium Sites in Northern Syria,” in Marjan Mashkour, ed., Equids in Time and Space: Papers in Honour of Vera Eisenmann, Oxford, 2006, pp. 101-23.

L. R. Weeks, C. A. Petrie, and D. T. Potts, “Ubaid-related-related? The ‘Black-on-buff’ Ceramic Traditions of Highland Southwest Iran,” in Robert A. Carter and Graham Philip, eds., Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East, Chicago, 2010, pp. 247-78.

(Daniel T. Potts)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: March 6, 2012