The Genoscope laboratory was part of an unprecedented international genomics study on the domestic donkey. This robust animal, capable of long journeys in semi-arid environments, is thought to have been domesticated in the Horn of Africa 7,000 years ago, during the desertification of the Sahara. The study reveals a history very different from that of horses and brings a bit of prestige to the donkey, perhaps less majestic than its Equidae siblings, but no less useful for humankind.
Genoscope, the national sequencing center, contributed to the sequencing of the genomes of 207 modern domestic donkeys (from around the world), as well as 31 ancient donkeys (using tooth or bone fragments) and 15 wild donkeys.
Carried out by an international consortium, including notably the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, the study shed light on a part of the history of this hardy animal, which continues to accompany human activities in many parts of the world. Donkeys are frugal, needing little water or food, adapted to agricultural tasks, and capable of carrying heavy loads in semi-arid, mountainous and other difficult environments.
The researchers showed that donkey domestication began uniquely in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya) at approximately 5000 BCE. The animal spread from there, first through Africa then to Eurasia from roughly 2500 BCE onwards. Thereafter, sub-populations began to appear in Central and Eastern Asia at about 2000 to 1000 BCE. Those movements ultimately became bidirectional. Indeed, by studying genetic contributions, the authors showed later movements from Europe and Asia toward Africa. The team also demonstrated moderate contributions by wild donkeys to the genomes of their domesticated counterparts.
This groundbreaking work, published in the 9 September 2022 issue of Science, reveals a domestication process for the donkey very different from that of the horse, including marked regional differences in the former, possibly tied to its role in human societies or refinement thereto over time. The study lays new paths for research. For example, the genetics of the donkey’s adaptation to desert environments could prove useful for breeding selection, notably in the setting of global warming.