Earliest evidence of bit use found, dating back 4700 years

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The occlusal face of both left and right LPM2 teeth that shows evidence of beveling of the enamel that is characteristic of bit wear. The teeth were from a donkey skeleton dating back 4700 years. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335
The occlusal face of both left and right LPM2 teeth that shows evidence of beveling of the enamel that is characteristic of bit wear. The teeth were from a donkey skeleton dating back 4700 years. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335

The earliest evidence for equid bit wear, dating back around 4700 years, has been unearthed in the ancient Near East, in modern-day Israel.

The discovery of tell-tale signs of bit wear in the teeth of donkey remains provides the first known evidence of the use of the bit to control an animal long before the appearance of the horse in the Near East.

The skeleton of the donkey in question dates to the Early Bronze Age III, around 2700 BCE.

It was found during excavations in the biblical city of Gath, of the Philistines, the home of Goliath, in central Israel. It is the site of modern Tell es-Safi.

The donkey was laid as a sacrificial offering before the construction of a house in a domestic neighborhood.

The international team, including archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University, the University of Manitoba, the University of Saskatchewan, Ariel University and Grand Valley State University, have published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

“This is significant because it demonstrates how early domestic donkeys were controlled, and adds substantially to our knowledge of the history of donkey domestication and evolution of riding and equestrian technology,” said the paper’s lead author, Professor Haskel Greenfield, of the University of Manitoba.

“It is also significant that it was discovered on the remains of an early domestic donkey that was sacrificed probably as an offering to protect what we interpret to be a merchant domestic residence uncovered during our excavations.”

Professor Aren Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University, said the use of a bridle and bit on a donkey during this period was surprising, since it was commonly assumed that donkeys were controlled with nose rings at the time, as depicted in Mesopotamian art.

The donkey being excavated. Photo: The Tell es-Safi/Gath project
The donkey being excavated. Photo: The Tell es-Safi/Gath project

The authors propose that the wear on the tooth of the donkey was made with a soft bit, likely made from rope or wood.

“Only later, from the Middle Bronze Age and onward (after 2000 BCE), was it thought that bits, in particular metal bits, were used – first with horses that were introduced to the Near East at the time, and subsequently with other equids, such as donkeys,” added Maeir.

Examples of these later bits were found in Israel at Tel Haror.

The donkey is one of four that were found buried under neighborhood houses, which indicates the importance of the donkey in this society — most likely as a beast of burden used in trade, the researchers said.

In a previously published study the researchers provided evidence, based on isotopic analyses, that this very same donkey was born in Egypt and brought to the region sometime during its lifetime.

This demonstrates that this animal — and most likely others — was transported over large distances.

Using bits would have allowed donkey herders to control the animals more easily during their transport.

Domestic horses were not yet present in the Near East at that time when the donkey was alive. As a result, donkeys were not only used as beasts of burden, but were also used to pull and be ridden by the newly emerging elites in these early city-states.

Donkeys were known to be used as beasts of burden, transporting goods in the Near East at the end of the 4th and beginning of the early 3rd millennium BCE.

However, little is known about the history of riding donkeys during this early period.

A photograph of mesial/anterior face of both left and right LPM2 teeth that shows evidence of erosion of the enamel that is characteristic of bit wear on the 4700-year-old donkey skeleton excavated from Israel. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335 

A bit is often used while riding to allow the rider more control over the animal, as opposed to a tether or nose ring which can simply prevent an animal from wandering, or lead an animal to a new location. Wear and tear on the teeth are often used as a proxy to identify whether or not a bit was worn.

The researchers used radiocarbon dating to estimate that the domestic donkey was likely buried around 2700 BCE.

Using microscopy, they examined the donkey’s teeth, finding that the tooth enamel had been worn down on the Lower Premolar 2 (LPM2) in an uneven fashion that is indicative of bit wear.

Normal tooth wear has been identified as more even and polished, yet the beveled surfaces on both of the LPM2 teeth specifically suggest that a bit may have been worn to control the donkey.

These findings suggest that donkeys may have worn bits in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium, long before the arrival of the horse. The researchers suggest that this early evidence of bit-wearing in donkeys emphasizes their significance as domesticated animals even at this early date, and this development continues to impact the political, social, and economic life of many third world countries today where donkeys continue to be an important means of transportation.

Greenfield HJ, Shai I, Greenfield TL, Arnold ER, Brown A, Eliyahu A, et al. (2018) Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell es-Sâfi/Gath, Israel. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0196335. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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