Ancient Rome's giant donkeys

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How donkeys changed the course of human history

INTRO: They are best known for their remarkable ability to carry heavy loads and a tenacious – almost stoic – approach to toil. In some parts of the world, the donkey has become associated, perhaps unfairly, with terms of insult or mockery. But in a French village around 174 miles (280km) east of Paris, archaeologists have made a discovery that is helping to rewrite much of what we know about these under-appreciated beasts of burden.

At the site of a Roman villa in the village of Boinville-en-Woëvre, a team unearthed the remains of several donkeys that would have dwarfed most of the species we are familiar with today.

"These were gigantic donkeys," says Ludovic Orlando, director of the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, at the Purpan Medical School in Toulouse, France. "These specimens, which were genetically linked to donkeys in Africa, were bigger than some of the horses."

Orlando has been leading a project that sequenced the DNA from the donkey skeletons. It was part of a much larger study to trace the origin of domestication of donkeys and their subsequent spread to other parts of the world. The research is providing surprising insights into the history of our own species through our relationship with these versatile animals.

According to Orlando, the donkeys bred at the Roman villa in Boinville-en-Woëvre measured 155cm (61in, or 15 hands – a unit for measuring horse height) from the ground to the withers (a ridge between the shoulder blades). The average height of donkeys today is 130cm (51 inches/12 hands). The only modern donkeys that might have come close are the American Mammoth Jacks – male donkeys that are unusually large and often used for breeding stock... (MORE - details)

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