Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ceremonial donkeys!

Ok..I can see cats being honored (after all they are our masters). May be dogs too. Heck, I can even see sheep being elevated to a higher level. But donkeys??? Well, it appears that at least one Egyptian King, 3000 years ago, had a strong affinity for the animal:

When archaeologists excavated brick tombs outside a ceremonial site for an early king of Egypt, they expected to find the remains of high officials who had been sacrificed to accompany the king in his posthumous travels.

Instead, they found donkeys.

No other animals have ever been found at such sites. Even at the tombs of the kings themselves, the only animals buried alongside were ones full of symbolism like lions.

But at this funerary complex, overlooking the ancient town of Abydos on the Nile about 300 miles south of Cairo, the archaeologists discovered the skeletons of 10 donkeys that had been buried as if they were high-ranking human officials.

“They were very surprised to find no humans and no funerary goods, and instead to find 10 donkeys,” said Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.

May be the King thought that his high ranking officials were really asses! (the researchers don't really discuss this possibility...). Ok..so may be he respected the utility of these donkeys (and not his courtiers):

Donkeys probably made possible long-distance trade routes between the Egyptians and the Sumerians. A genetic study published in 2004 concluded that donkeys were domesticated in northeastern Africa 6,000 years ago or earlier, perhaps in response to a changing climate that dried a lush pre-Sahara into the Sahara. Donkeys were well suited for the task, requiring little water and able to subsist on meager vegetation. “It was the first transport off human backs,” Dr. Marshall said.

The bones of the Abydos donkeys, dating from around 3000 B.C., clearly showed wear from their burdens. At the major joints like shoulders and hips, the bone surfaces were roughened where the cartilage had worn down. Signs of arthritis were seen in areas where the heavy loads would have been carried.

“It’s the first definite evidence for their use as transport animals,” Dr. Marshall said.

But the animals were also in good health and apparently well taken care of, she said. There were no signs of feet or teeth problems. And the beasts were revered.

“This is a very high-status area where these donkeys were buried,” said Matthew D. Adams, a lecturer in Egyptian art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, a member of the team that excavated the graves and a co-author of the donkey article. “And they were buried just like courtiers that were associated with the king. That in itself is a statement on the importance of the donkey as a service animal at this time.”

Ok, I admit that I have been too biased against donkeys - but now I have a newfound respect for this useful but often misrepresented/misunderstood/miscast animal.

To change your perception, read the full story here. And if this doesn't convince you, please read about Monika, who recently retired after 19 years of carrying the character, Sancho Panza, in the Russian ballet, Don Quixote.