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Marshall pottery donkey

Photo by Neil Schoenherr

Fiona Marshall, Ph.D., examines the jawbone of a horse with Mercedes Gutierrez, third-year graduate student in physical anthropology in Arts & Sciences. Marshall is conducting a National Science Foundation-sponsored multiyear study on African pastoralism and the domestication of the donkey.

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No laughing matter

Fiona Marshall studies the domestication of the African wild ass


By Neil Schoenherr found at May 14, 2007

She's heard all the jokes. "When I tell people I study wild ass, I do get some looks," says Fiona Marshall, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and of African & African American Studies, both in Arts & Sciences.

But it's no laughing matter. Marshall is one of the world's preeminent scholars on donkey domestication in Africa. 

Marshall is an African archaeologist whose research incorporates zooarchaeological and ethnoarchaeogical approaches to the beginnings of food production and the development of pastoralism — tending of large herds of animals — in northeast Africa.

Fiona Marshall

Title: Professor of anthropology and of African & African American Studies, both in Arts & Sciences

Courses taught: "The Prehistory of Africa"; "Zooarchaeology"; "Ethnoarchaeology"; "Hunter-Gatherer Socioeconomic Variation"

African & African American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis
One Brookings Drive, CB 1109
226 McMillan Hall
St. Louis, MO 63130
314-935-5631 - 314-935-9390 (fax)

She has published many articles on these topics and is conducting a National Science Foundation-sponsored multi-year study on African pastoralism and the domestication of the donkey.

Born in Kenya, Africa, Marshall developed an early interest in archaeology when her parents took her to lectures by famed archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey, whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa.

"My mother embarrassed me greatly recently when she gave me one of those 'What I want to be when I grow up' essays I'd written when I was probably 5 or 6 in which I

 wanted to be an archaeologist because I was good at finding things," she says.

And she remained good at it, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Reading in England and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 1986.

At Berkeley, she was a student of Glynn Isaac and of J. Desmond Clark, British archaeologists particularly noted for their work on prehistoric Africa. After beginning her graduate work in the study of early hominid archaeology at Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, she switched much of her focus to the origins of agriculture in Africa.

"In the late 1970s, around the time I was beginning my studies, it became clear there wasn't just one way that humans had become agriculturists," Marshall says. "I wanted to explore the ways that African agricultural development may have been different from that of the Middle East."

In 1981, she went to work in the Maasai-Mara area of Kenya, just north of the Serengeti.

Though not explored archaeologically, the area is part of an ecosystem with the largest animal biomass in the world.

Working with several colleagues, Marshall excavated more than 160,000 animal bones, along with a lot of pottery and other terracotta, pottery and ceramic arts artifacts.

"While we expected to find a lot of hunting, we ended up discovering very few bones of wild animals," Marshall says. "Most of the bones we found were of domestic animals. This told us that around that time, 3,000 years ago, the people were specialized in cattle keeping. It was clearly a choice for them not to eat wild animals."

The study piqued Marshall's interest and raised questions about the definitions of wild and domestic and the role humans play in wild ecosystems.

Her boyfriend from Berkeley had come to Kenya with her. The two shared a passion for anthropology and eventually married in 1983 in Kenya. Her husband, Thomas K. Pilgram, Ph.D., is an instructor in radiology at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at the School of Medicine.

In 1986, the couple moved to St. Louis when Marshall was hired in the Department of Anthropology.

"I was very fortunate because my dissertation adviser at Berkeley was famed far and wide as being a man of particular integrity and brilliance," Marshall says. "Then when I came here, I found probably the only other person in the archaeological community as famed for integrity and brilliance: Patty Jo Watson. She was the senior archaeologist who hired me, and I was extremely fortunate to have her as a mentor."

Watson, Ph.D., is now Distinguished University Professor Emerita in Archaeology in Arts & Sciences.

After the Maasai-Mara project, Marshall wanted to continue studying the last 10,000 years in African history, with interests in both pastoralists and hunter-gatherers.

So after joining the WUSTL faculty, she set off for eastern Africa to study, in collaboration with her husband, how present-day people in that area hunt and gather honey and to better aid in interpretation of the ancient hunter-gatherer sites.

Between 1993 and 1996, she went on to direct the archaeological team from WUSTL that undertook the re-excavation of the 3.6-million-year-old Laetoli footprint site for conservation by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Tanzanian government.

Over the past decade, she has continued to work on early pastoralism in Africa and late hunter-gatherers to get a better overall comparative perspective on how the human societies worked continent-wide during the beginnings of food production in Africa.

This resulted in a 2002 paper, co-written with her graduate student Lisa Hildebrand, called "Cattle Before Crops: The Origins and Spread of Food Production in Africa."

Marshall uses her background in human origins and pastoral societies to teach students in her archaeology of Africa classes about the human trajectory in Africa from 3.6 million years to 2,000 years ago.

But the research on which Marshall focuses is donkeys and the African wild ass.

"Several years ago, Erik Trinkaus [Ph.D., the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Physical Anthropology in Arts & Sciences] gave me a paper on horse genetics," Marshall says. "It had always been assumed that Egyptians domesticated the donkey. But as I started to look into the scientific literature, I realized there were no formal studies on the donkey and its anthropological or biological history. Apparently, since the donkey is not a food animal, it was seen as having low status and not worthy of study."

But Marshall began to change that.

"The donkey is one of only eight major mammals ever domesticated, which makes it extremely rare," she says. "Also, donkeys are not great candidates for domestication. They are territorial, anti-social and have a reputation for being stubborn. I wanted to find out why the donkey was domesticated and what role that played in African pastoral society."

It was not an easy project.

"There are only about 17 African wild ass skeletons in the entire world," Marshall says. "Surprisingly, I have also been able to locate only about 35 donkey skeletons."

To complete her study, she had to photograph and study ancient Egyptian donkey skeletons as well as all available bones of recent wild and domestic animals that were needed for comparison. She also had to read all the ethnographic studies on donkeys.

"I visited a lot of natural history museums in a lot of countries," she says.

In the past several years, she has been to England, Kenya, Egypt, Italy, Belgium and Germany, among other locales, in support of her research.

Marshall also examined modern African populations in an attempt to determine how many people use donkeys and whether or not they are important to modern pastoralist societies.

"No one has ever examined the importance of the donkey to pastoralists," she says. "Everyone knew donkeys were important to the early states because the Egyptians used them to establish land-based trade with the Sumarians and others. In fact, they were so important that donkey skeletons have been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs."

By studying how donkeys are used in modern African societies, Marshall began to realize that donkeys are mainly women's animals.

"They are used for moving household goods, transporting young and old people and transporting young livestock," she says. "Day to day, they are used to get water, which is one of the heaviest chores that women mostly do in pastoral societies, along with getting firewood."

By having a donkey and using it to haul water, people can live farther from water and manage rangeland, preserving grass near water for the driest times.

"Having a donkey is really a blessing for families in these societies," Marshall says. "In fact, women who don't have to haul water are actually in better shape and can have more children.

"Also, the donkey allows for faster response to climate change," she adds. "Herders are able to more easily take the cattle where they need to graze, improving the health of the herd and of the family."

Marshall theorizes that the earliest herders would not have been that mobile, and it was the domestication of the donkey that made pastoralism possible.

"I think that's important because pastoralism was the way the food production spread across Africa," she says.

According to Marshall, pastoralism is still the most efficient way to use arid lands in Africa, and donkeys are a very important means of transportation for poor people in arid and mountainous country worldwide.

Marshall is collaborating with colleagues in Florida and Portugal to study ancient and modern donkey DNA. On the basis of new results, she theorizes that donkeys were domesticated in Africa around 4,000-6,000 years ago as the Sahara dried.

She and her undergraduate research class have studied the behavior of the wild ass in collaboration with the Saint Louis Zoo, which has one of the world's few breeding herds of the little-studied and critically endangered African wild ass.

While she may visit an art museum or two during her travels, the focus always returns to donkeys.

"There aren't many people in the world who study donkeys," she says, "but we're all quite passionate about it."

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