Donkeys have a bad reputation. They’re considered stupid, and stubborn, and lowly. All of which, says Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is unfair and inaccurate.
“Whole trade routes were built on donkeys, and the wealth of ancient Egypt depended on them,” Marshall says of the sturdy horse relatives, which were once essential for moving goods around.
But over time, donkeys became animals for ordinary women.
“They were extremely intelligent, and essential to managing a farm, moving children, collecting water — but no longer associated with elite activity,” she said.
Marshall hopes that new research she published with scientists in China will restore donkeys’ good standing in history.
In 2012, those scientists excavated the tomb of a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) noblewoman named Cui Shi, in the northwest Chinese city of Xi’an. Inside they found something they weren’t expecting: donkey bones.
These were the first donkeys from this period found east of Iran, according to Marshall; that’s because donkeys probably died mostly on roads outside settlements, making their bones hard to find. The bones were also rare evidence that “donkeys still had high status at this time, and were still used by powerful people,” Marshall says.
The proof? Cui Shi had used the donkeys to play a game called Lvju. This is a special kind of polo in which players ride donkeys instead of horses. The donkeys had been so important to Cui Shi that she had them sacrificed and buried with her, so she could continue to ride them and play Lvju in the afterlife.
The scientists figured this out in a few ways. First, they knew Cui Shi’s husband had been a famous polo player, which meant that the game was very important to the family. Second, Tang Dynasty law allowed animal sacrifice only for “a plausible special reason, like polo,” says Marshall. And third, the donkeys’ leg bones showed “stresses and strains that come from moving fast then stopping suddenly. It’s not what you would see if they had just carried heavy loads and moved slowly.”
The discovery of these donkeys isn’t just important for what they show us about animals in the Tang Dynasty. They also tell us something important about women at that time.
Explains Marshall, “Tang women lived in a society that was quite cosmopolitan and multicultural, because the Silk Route brought traders and people from all over Asia. And they had significantly more freedom than they would later on. The fact that they were allowed to mingle, and to play polo, is really fascinating.”
Tang women may have elevated the status of donkeys in society. But donkeys also helped to equalize Tang women. What the game of Lvju highlights for us, Marshall points out, is that women engaging in sports goes so much further back than Serena Williams or the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. “Women’s sports have a long and interesting history. That’s something that doesn’t get enough attention,” Marshall says.