Domesticating Donkeys: Ancient evidence of bit use on donkeys found in Israel

Domesticating Donkeys: Ancient evidence of bit use on donkeys found in Israel

Donkeys have long served as beasts of burden, transporting goods in the Near East at the end of the fourth and beginning of the early third millennium B.C. Little is known, however, about the history of riding donkeys during this period. A piece of equipment known as a bit can provide clues; a bit is often placed in the mouth of a donkey to allow a rider more control over the animal. Wear and tear on ancient animals’ teeth are often used as a proxy to identify whether or not they wore a bit.

In a new PLOS ONE study, Haskel Greenfield and colleagues excavated the remains of a domestic donkey sealed beneath the courtyard of an ancient house in an Israeli archaeological site known as Tell es-Sâfi/Gath. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate that the donkey was likely buried around 2700 B.C.. Using microscopy, they examined the donkey’s teeth, finding that the enamel had been worn down on two lower premolar teeth in an uneven fashion that is indicative of bit wear. Normal tooth wear is more even and polished, so the beveled surfaces on both of the 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 third millennium B.C., 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. Indeed, their domestication continues to impact the political, social and economic life of many third world countries where donkeys are an important means of transportation.

“Our study demonstrated the earliest evidence for dental bit wear (or the use of a bit) in an equid for the ancient Near East,” says Greenfield. “The fact that it is found on a donkey highlights that domestic donkeys were the main form of transportation during the Early Bronze Age. Horses were only introduced to the region much later in time. This study highlights the importance of preserving archaeological remains in order to be able to subject them to microscopic scientific analysis.”

Reference: 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 eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0196335.

Image Credit: Tell es-Safi/Gath project.


Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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