Dental analysis of the teeth of a 4,700-year-old donkey indicate the first evidence of equid bridle bit wear in the Near East. It is some 600 years earlier than commonly thought, and predates the arrival of horses to the region.
An international team of multidisciplinary researchers published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One Wednesday. In the article, the authors dispel the common belief that bit use entered the Near East only upon the introduction of horses in the region from the Middle Bronze Age and onward (after 2000 BCE).
Their conclusions were reached through careful study of the wear patterns on teeth from a donkey from the Early Bronze Age, which indicate the use of a soft, biodegradable bit, predating horses in the region by centuries.
According to article co-author Prof. Aren Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, “the technological solution for controlling these animals is as least 600-700 years earlier.” Maeir is head of the 20-year Tell es-Safi excavations where the donkey was uncovered in 2008.
Lead author on the article, Prof. Haskel Greenfield, of the University of Manitoba, said in a Bar-Ilan University press release, “This is significant because it demonstrates how early domestic donkeys were controlled, and adds substantially to our knowledge of the history of donkey (Equus asinus) domestication and evolution of riding and equestrian technology.”
Previous early archaeological evidence of the use of a bit was found in Israel at a ritual burial at Tel Haror in a ritual burial found in a Middle Bronze Age III sacred precinct (1700-1550 BCE) excavated by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz. There, a copper bit was discovered in the mouth of a buried donkey.
However, the bit — and corresponding copper saddle bag pieces on the donkey’s back — are thought to be ritual objects, and not for practical use.
“The absence of any sign of bit wear on the lower premolars indicates that the animal was not ridden or driven with a bit for prolonged periods of time. Moreover, the young donkey was still in the process of shedding its teeth and permanent teeth were just erupting. Based on its age, the Haror donkey would probably have been too young to be a trained draught animal,” wrote Bar-Oz in a 2013 PLOS One article.
In the case of the Tell es-Safi donkey studied in the current PLOS One article, the use of the bit at appears to be purely practical.
An offering to the gods
The fully articulated skeleton of a 4-year-old female donkey was uncovered in 2008 during ongoing archaeological excavations at Tell es-Safi, the site of biblical Gath, in Israel’s Shephelah (lowlands), between Jerusalem and the coastal city of Ashkelon.
It was uncovered under the walls of an Early Bronze Age dwelling, and is thought to have been used as a way of appeasing gods ahead of the reconstruction of a middle-class merchant neighborhood.
A 2016 scientific article by Greenfield and Maeir describing the donkey’s isotopic signature showed that the donkey was a newcomer to the region. Its origin was in Egypt.
“Given the contemporary Egyptian Old Kingdom historical texts which record caravans consisting of hundreds of donkeys carrying goods to Egypt, it is likely that the donkey came as part of these caravans,” writes Greenfield in the current article.
It is thought by Greenfield that the donkey arrived at Tell es-Safi, a booming metropolis during the Early Bronze Age, only a few months ahead of its slaughter.
Whether the bit technology was imported from Egypt or was indigenous to Israel of that time is still difficult to ascertain. In correspondence with The Times of Israel, Greenfield acknowledged that there is uncertainty on this question.
“Unfortunately, there is no evidence to date whether the technology originated in Egypt or Israel since no comparable studies have been conducted on Egyptian sites and donkey skeletons. Nonetheless, it is possible that bits originated in Egypt since the donkey came from there and only spent the last few months in Israel near Tell es-Safi, and the bit wear originated during the journey. It would have taken time for the bit wear to develop,” wrote Greenfield.
“However, one can just as easily argue that since the bit wear developed only in the last few months of its life while in Israel since it is very slight bit wear. More skeletons need to be analyzed from both regions to answer this question,” he wrote.
We may find out the answer in the near future: “There is another donkey with similar bit wear, but the analysis is still ongoing. I can’t comment on its implications yet,” wrote Greenfield.
All told, four full donkey specimens and other bone pieces were discovered in this neighborhood during the more than 20 years of Tell es-Safi excavations.
Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, Maeir said that all the animals were discovered under the floors of domestic houses from the Early Bronze Age III, circa 2500. Other objects of interest discovered in the relatively modest houses were from both inside and outside Canaan, leading the researchers to believe that the inhabitants are merchants.
The use of the donkey as a foundation deposit — a ritual object placed under flooring ahead of the construction of a building — also may indicate that the inhabitants are merchants since donkeys were used for trade and shipping — even as far as Egypt.
“We knew that donkeys were used as vehicles, but seems to indicate it was one of the trade items as well,” said Maeir, who explained that donkeys were domesticated in Egypt and northern African over 1,000 years before this donkey’s appearance in Canaan.
“This donkey,” joked Maeir, “Was sent not only as the truck, but as one of the aspects transported in trade.”
Whether it was imported specifically for slaughter, Maeir doesn’t know, but its placement in the shallow 20 cm deep pit exactly dug for the donkey’s measurement under the home’s flooring was obviously deliberate.
“There’s a lot of evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia that donkeys played a central role in trade and commerce,” said Maeir. “Once things play an important role in daily life, they migrate to the symbolic parts of it.”
The donkey was ritually slaughtered, and its head and neck were removed from its body and placed backwards on its abdomen, then covered with dirt flooring.
Anticipating this reporter’s question about the resultant foul odor, Maeir laughed and said, “I would assume there was a horrible stench, but antiquities stunk.” He added that it’s no coincidence that perfume and incense evolved then — not to make a better smell, rather to mask a horrible one.
Taking a closer look
Since 2008, this donkey has been intensely researched. Its remains largely crumbled upon excavation, however its teeth did not.
According to Maeir, zeoarcheologist Greenfield noticed markings of something rubbing against the teeth regularly on four of the donkey’s teeth. In comparison to later period pack animals it was typical of what a bit would leave, he said.
There was no physical evidence of bit use during this era at any other regional site, nor is there artistic representation of it. Rather, artisans showed donkeys with nose rings when they were being led.
However, after more testing and analysis, there is no physical evidence of a metal bit, nor even of a soft bit such as rope or bone.
According to the PLOS One paper, “In the absence of clear bridles and metal bits, bit wear can be (and has been) used as a proxy diagnostic. The bit normally will sit on the tongue and gums in the diastema between the premolars and the incisors which will result in morphological pathologies (e.g. the wearing down of the tooth surface due to the rubbing) on the mandibular (diastema) bone and dental enamel.”
This wear, according to Greenfield, is in line with what was observed in the Tell es-Safi donkey’s teeth.
In the PLOS One article, Greenfield concludes, “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 appearance of the horse, contrary to previous suggestions.”