Evidence of bit use in a donkey dates back 4700 years

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The remains of the donkey, as it was being unearthed. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335

Evidence of bit use has been found in the remains of a donkey believed to be 4700 years old.

The remains, unearthed in modern-day Israel, harbor the earliest known evidence for bit use in the ancient Near East – the area encompassing the modern-day Middle East.

The remains were found in a domestic residential neighborhood in Tell es-Safi/Gath, 35km northwest of Hebron, where humans are believed to have lived continuously since the 5th millennium BCE.

The sacrificed and interred domestic donkey dates from the Early Bronze Age, 2800 to 2600 BCE. While scientists were unable to use radiocarbon technology to date the remains, the layer in which it was found dates to about 4700 years ago.

The scientists found evidence of bit wear on the Lower Premolar 2.

“This is the earliest evidence for the use of a bit among early domestic equids, and in particular donkeys, in the Near East,” anthropological archaeologist Haskel Greenfield and his colleagues reported in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Enamel surfaces were found to be slightly worn in a fashion that suggests a bit was used to control the animal, which was believed to be 4 to 5 years old when it died.

Bit use on donkeys appeared in the early 3rd millennium BCE in the southern Levant, in the eastern Mediterranean.

Domestic donkeys were introduced to the ancient Near East at the end of the 4th and beginning of the early 3rd millennium BCE. They dramatically changed the nature of transportation of people and goods in early complex societies.

Donkeys made it easier and cheaper to transport commodities over both long and short distances, which grew the trade in goods and movement of people.

They allowed a flourishing of long-distance exchange networks that connected the ancient Near East to central and southern Asia to Egypt, Anatolia, and the Mediterranean coastal ports.

In Mesopotamia, there is both textual and iconographic evidence that donkeys and/or onagers were used for plowing and as draft animals by the early 3rd millennium BCE.

The most famous depictions are on the Standard of Ur and the Vulture Stele, where they have been identified as pulling wagons, with nose rings used for control.

Donkeys are also identifiable in tomb artwork, where they are shown being used for threshing and transport of goods in Egypt from the Old Kingdom onwards.

A photograph of both the left and right LPM2 teeth that shows evidence of erosion of the enamel that is characteristic of bit wear on the donkey skeleton from Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335
A photograph of both the left and right LPM2 teeth that shows evidence of erosion of the enamel that is characteristic of bit wear on the donkey skeleton from Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath. Photo: Greenfield et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196335

In contrast to what is known about the use of donkeys for transportation, the study team noted that relatively little is known about their use for riding during this early period.

“Riding is possible, but fast riding is difficult without some kind of bridle with reins to grasp,” the study team said. “Thus, the development of the bit becomes an essential part of the mechanism to control and ride an equid, whether horse, donkey or otherwise.

“While some have tried to argue based on cave art for the presence of bridles (including cheek straps and potentially bits) on equids as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic, this perspective has not been accepted.”

Instead, the weight of evidence for bridles points toward the Eneolithic and Bronze Age of Kazakhstan and Russia, around 3500 BCE for horses, not donkeys.

However, horses are not the earliest domestic equids to appear in the ancient Near East. This role is reserved for the ass/donkey.

The authors say the literature is rife with ambiguous terminology that fails to distinguish between halters and bridles.

While both a halter and bridle use cheek straps that encircle the mouth, a bridle also includes a bit that extends through the mouth and leans up against the lower premolar 2 teeth. And such bits can cause wear.

Greenfield and his colleagues said that while no metal or other type of artifacts that could be identified as a bit were found associated with the Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath donkey, striations and pitting on the surface of a tooth can also be used to give some indication of what was used.

Metal bits, they said, create microscopic striations (from scraping up and down) and pits (from impact or material getting caught between the bit and tooth).

“The absence of such pits and striations on the Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath specimen when examined under microscopic conditions suggests that the bit may have been of a softer nature.”

They proposed a material of an organic nature, such as bone, wood or a hard rope.

The researchers dismissed crib-biting as a possible cause of the wear, saying such wear would be more focused on the incisors.

“It is also unlikely that the beveling on the LPM2 was purposely caused by rasping … since there is no evidence for the purposeful rounding, microscopic wear pattern, and grooves associated with such rasping.”

Also, the observed beveling is limited to the most superior segment of the surface, which would be the first location to be worn down under the influence of a bit.

Their findings, they said, substantiate the proposal that tooth wear seen in the remains of donkeys found at Tell Brak, an ancient city in Syria, also shows bit wear.

“These finds suggest that bit use on donkeys was already present in the early to mid-3rd millennium BCE, long before the appearance of horses in the ancient Near East.

“Thus, the appearance of bit use in donkeys in the ancient Near East is not connected to the appearance of the horse, contrary to previous suggestions.

“As such, the impact of the domestic donkey on the cultures of this region and the evolution of early complex societies cannot be underestimated.

“As with plant and animal domestication, the use of donkeys created a surplus of human labor that allowed for the easy transport of people and goods across the entire Near East.

“These changes continue to permeate the economic, social, and political aspects of even modern life in many third world countries.”

The full study team comprised Greenfield and Annie Brown, who are with the University of Manitoba in Canada; Itzhaq Shai and Adi Eliyahu, from Ariel University in Israel; Tina Greenfield, from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada; Elizabeth Arnold, from Grand Valley State University in the United States; and Aren Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Greenfield HJ, Shai I, Greenfield TL, Arnold ER, Brown A, Eliyahu-Behar A, et al. (2018) Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/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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