"Donkeys subsequently spread into Eurasia from ~2500 BCE, and Central and Eastern Asian subpopulations differentiated ~2000 to 1000 BCE," the team wrote.

Eventually, lineages from Europe and the Near East back bred into western African donkey populations.

Horses, their equid cousins, are believed on the other hand to have been domesticated twice -- the first time around 6,000 years ago in the western Eurasian steppes.

The donkey DNA study included three jennies (females) and six jacks (males) from an ancient Roman site in France who were closely interbred.

The authors suggest that Romans bred improved donkey bloodlines to produce mules that were essential to sustaining the military and economic might of the empire.

Donkeys were vital to the development of ancient societies and remain important in middle and lower income countries, but lost their status and utility in modern industrial societies, perhaps explaining why they were neglected by science.

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