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Donkeys carried Christ into Jerusalem while in Greek myth they transported Hephaistos up to Mount Olympos and Dionysos into battle against the Giants. They were probably the first animals that people ever rode, as well as the first used on a large-scale as beasts of burden. Associated with kingship and the gods in the ancient Near East, they have been (and in many places still are) a core technology for moving people and goods over both short and long distances, as well as a supplier of muscle power for threshing and grinding grain, pressing olives, raising water, ploughing fields, and pulling carts, to name just a few of the uses to which they have been put.
Yet despite this, they remain one of the least studied, and most widely ignored, of all domestic animals, consigned to the margins of history like so many of those who still depend upon them. Spanning the globe and extending from the donkey's initial domestication up to the present, The Donkey in Human History seeks to remedy this situation by using archaeological evidence, in combination with insights from history and anthropology, to resituate the donkey (and its hybrid offspring such as the mule) in the unfolding of human history, looking not just at what donkeys and mules did, but also at how people have thought about and understood them.
Intended in part for university researchers and students working in the broad fields of world history, archaeology, animal history, and anthropology, but it should also interest anyone keen to learn more about one of the most widespread and important of the animals that people have domesticated.
A Note on Nomenclature and Dating
1: Why Donkeys?
3: Along and Beyond the Nile
4: The Ancient Near East
5: The Classical World
6: The Triumph of the Mule
7: New Worlds for the Donkey
8: The Donkey's Tale
Peter Mitchell is Professor of African Archaeology, University of Oxford, Tutor and Fellow in Archaeology, St Hugh's College, Oxford, and Hon. Research Associate, GAES, University of the Witwatersrand. His primary specialization has been in southern African hunter-gatherer archaeology and he has directed several projects in Lesotho. More recently, Professor Mitchell has focused on the archaeology of animals (including dogs and horses). President of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists from 2004 to 2006, he is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and co-edit Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, as well as sitting on the editorial boards of several other journals.
"Mitchells book is a comprehensive overview of the role of the donkey in human history, based on a carefully crafted compilation of the archaeological evidence and its comparison with literary sources. The topic itself is original given that the donkeys history is often delivered piecemeal, hidden within that of its more popular cousin the horse. By devoting his attention exclusively to this animal, the author achieves his aim of extracting it from its anonymity and filling a significant gap in the field [...] In his book, the local and the global mingle, showing that the role of the donkey goes beyond its use in daily life and largely contributes to shape societies. In a nutshell, I highly recommend this book; it is bound to become a key reference in the field, stimulating further research but also making us rethink our perception of the animals with which we interact."
– Pauline Hanot, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, European Journal of Archaeology
"Mitchell's ambitiously pitched and well-written study, a major contribution to the archaeology of animals, is the work of a scholar of African archaeology and this shows throughout the book. Covering a vast amount of ground in terms of both geography and chronology, and picking up on key moments in the history of the donkey, Mitchell often directs readers towards the material evidence and guides them through sometimes difficult material with ease and elegance. Anthropological, archaeological, and historical sources provide the foundation for this distinctly interdisciplinary study, and the narrative is very well illustrated with images (the volume contains more than a hundred black-and-white images, and there are around thirty colour plates, alongside a number of tables)."
– Andrej Petrovic, University of Virginia, Greece and Rome
"[a] highly readable book [...] This book belongs on every excavator's shelf and should be required reading for any students planning to participate in fieldwork."
– Peter Ian Kuniholm, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"I recommend this book highly as an informative, amply documented, and valuable contribution for the use of specialists in the relevant historical and cultural fields, and also as being well worth reading or dipping into for anyone interested in the longue durée of history and for the role(s) of nonhuman animals within that history."
– Mark Griffiths, Religious Studies Review
"Through the history of the donkey, Mitchell tells us about the multiple facets of the history of world societies. It is a most engaging journey and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it from cover to cover – a rare luxury in modern-day academia. The book will be of interest to historians and archaeologists alike and is very strongly recommended."
– Umberto Albarella, Medieval Archeology
"Mitchell's ambitiously pitched and well-written study, a major contribution to the archaeology of animals, is the work of a scholar of African archaeology and this shows throughout the book. Covering a vast amount of ground in terms of both geography and chronology, and picking up on key moments in the history of the donkey, Mitchell often directs readers towards the material evidence and guides them through sometimes difficult material with ease and elegance. Anthropological, archaeological, and historical sources provide the foundation for this distinctly interdisciplinary study, and the narrative is very well illustrated with images"
– Andrej Petrovic, Greece and Rome
"this is an excellent account, bringing together different strands of the donkey's long tale to offer a persuasive archaeological rebranding of these four-legged friends and their fundamental place in human history."
– Current World Archaeology