When referring to animal traction and the use of this source of energy, donkeys assumed an exceptional role worldwide, providing power and transport at low cost, representing in the last thousands of years a cornerstone in the development and support of populations worldwide.
The history of donkeys (Equus asinus) is tied to human history. According to archaeological evidences of ancient Egypt where entombed equids’ bones were found, they were consistent with heavy load carrying due to evidence of strain found on their backbones suggests that the donkey was probably domesticated around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
The domestication of the donkey was a pivotal point in human history, leading to a large-scale revolution in the organization and life-style of cities and pastoral societies, improving transport systems and promoting overland trade in Africa and Asia. Donkeys probably reached the Iberian Peninsula by the hands of Phoenician traders and with the expansion of the Roman Empire, during the Roman conquests, reached all points of Europe.
Thousands of years later, donkeys are still kept for draft purposes and relied upon as a major source of traction all over the world, because of their desirable traits. Donkeys are able to work and tolerate extreme weather conditions, have enhanced disease resistance, and can survive on minimal amounts of food. They are essential to the agricultural and industrial activities, but also play a key role in the social and economic support in many of these countries, particularly in rural areas of limited income, where they present unique characteristics for sustainable animal production.
Even in countries in the process of rapid growth and industrialization (for example China, Brazil or Mexico), the populations of working donkeys remain relatively stable, mainly owned by a large rural and urban population with low incomes and little or no access to motorized modern technology, and where animal energy clearly represents a vast and extremely important power resource.
Despite the high and increasing number of donkeys worldwide, the number of donkeys in Europe suffered a major decline in recent decades. The technology improvement and mechanization of agriculture registered during the 20th century in Europe, together with the rural exodus, greatly reduced the need of equids as animals of draft and burden, leading to a drastic reduction of the number of donkeys. This process was somewhat slower in the southern European.
Rodrigues, J. B, McLean, A, Garrett, C. (2015) Animal traction and work. Volume 2: Functionalities of the donkeys. Current Donkey Production and Functionality. In Press.
The image used has been published under the terms of a Creative Commons License and is attributed to Associação Portuguesa de Tracção Animal.