"Knowing where a domestication event first occurred is important, because there are always cultural ramifications from being first," said Sandra Olsen, Ph.D., curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who did not participate in the research. "With a nucleus of animals that can serve as either a food source, transportation or some other purpose, particular cultures acquire advantages that make them more successful than their neighbors. Consider that animals like the horse and the donkey were used for military purposes.
"From the point of view of a biologist or someone who studies animal husbandry, it is interesting to find the source for a species because it can even have veterinary ramifications," she said. "The work done in this project is extraordinary. They located very hard to find samples not common at all in museums, and the archeological specimens are difficult to obtain positive results from because the heat often destroys the organic material. They've made some considerable advances."
Besides revealing that the African wild ass is the living ancestor of today's domestic donkeys, the genetic evidence also reveals that the Somali wild ass is not a living ancestor as once suspected, but closer akin to a more modern cousin.
That leaves a question of a remaining, yet unidentified ancestor of modern donkeys believed to have sprung from a different branch of the family. Researchers suspect that ancestors of this animal are extinct, but they may have roamed the Maghreb of northeastern Africa, and possibly the coast of Yemen.
The research was initiated by funding from the National Science Foundation and also supported by the Wildlife Trust, St. Louis Zoo, Basel Zoo, Liberec Zoo and the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.
Conservation samples were collected by co-authors Patricia D. Moehlman of the Internation
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University of Florida