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The Tell es-Safi/Gath project

This ancient skeleton suggests humans were riding donkeys nearly 5000 years ago

Some 4700 years ago, a caravan of Egyptian herders and their donkeys followed a trade route through the foothills of central Israel, destined for the ancient city-state of Tell es-Safi/Gath. There, a Bronze Age builder slaughtered and buried one of the young animals and built a mudbrick house atop it—a sacrificial offering to ensure the edifice’s stability.

When a team of archaeologists uncovered the donkey’s skeleton (pictured) in 2008, they noted curious indentations in its lower premolars. The beveling strongly resembled that seen in the teeth of horses and other equids when they wear a bit, a piece of material secured in an animal’s mouth to control its head movements when riding.

Now, new radiocarbon dating from elsewhere in the site suggests the animal lived around 2700 B.C.E., providing the earliest evidence yet of donkey ridership in the Near East, the authors report today in PLOS ONE.

That’s about 1000 years before horses are thought to have arrived in the region. As a result, these ancient herdspeople likely learned to ride donkeys long before horses outpaced them as the preferred mode of transportation—and largely relegated donkeys to being beasts of burden.