As It Happens

Beast of burden, or animal athlete? Donkeys were used for polo in ancient China, study finds

Researchers have uncovered the first archeological evidence that donkeys were used for more than just work, but for the sport of polo.

'It was an extraordinary finding,' says researcher Fiona Marshall

A Tang Dynasty-era Chinese figurine of a donkey. (Antiquity Journal)

Donkeys have long been used around the world as beasts of burden — to transport goods through Europe in the time of the Greeks and Romans, and as an integral aspect of trade along the Silk Road.

Now, researchers have uncovered the first archeological evidence that donkeys were used for more than just work, but also for the sport of polo.

Fiona Marshall, an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., called it "an extraordinary finding."

"No donkeys have been documented, physically, in ancient societies east of Iran, so these are the first donkeys known," Marshall told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"They should be there, according to some of the ancient literature.… But there was no material evidence of any kind of people playing polo on donkeys — no paintings, no sculptures and no bones."

Until now.

Noblewoman played donkey polo

The bones of three donkeys were discovered inside the tomb of Cui Shi, who was a noblewoman during the late Tang Dynasty in China, more than 1,000 years ago.

Although donkey polo has been described in literature from the era, Marshall said it would have been rare for a woman of elite status to come in contact with the animal.

She described the revelation as "totally unexpected." 

The findings were published this month in the journal Antiquity.

The discovery of a set of rare donkey bones in a noblewoman's tomb has provided physical proof that the animals were used to play polo in China more than a thousand years ago. (Antiquities Journal )

Polo is a mounted team sport in which players use a long mallet to hit a small hard ball through the opposing team's goal.

It was typically played by people of the court, or generals preparing for war, she said. However, all of the history points to the noblewoman having used the donkeys for sport.

"All the different lines of evidence put together don't make sense in any other way," she said.

"The Tang emperor of the time was really passionate about polo. And, in fact, he even advanced Cui Shi's husband, who became first a general and then the governor of two really important Tang provinces ... because he was so good at polo."

Extremely rare donkey bones found in China are the first physical evidence that people played polo on donkeys during the Tang Dynasty. The beasts of play were buried in the tomb of a noblewoman. (Antiquity Journal)

It's not completely clear why, in some cases, people played polo with donkeys instead of horses. But Marshall said ancient texts suggest people believed donkeys were safer to ride because they were lower to the ground, and slower.

They were also more steady; they didn't startle as easily as horses given that their ancestors were herd animals, she said.

Polo in the afterlife?

Donkeys were considered too important to slaughter, because of their role in trade and transportation, Marshall said.

The only exceptions were for important ceremonies or sacrifices.

Fiona Marshall is an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis. (Sean Garcia/Washington University in St. Louis)

"The only reason that ... the donkeys would be present in the tomb was because they were killed in a ceremony at the time [Cui Shi] was buried,"  Marshall said. 

The reason? The noblewoman may have intended to play donkey polo in the afterlife.

"It sounds a little wild, but it's the only explanation that makes sense," she said.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Interview produced by John McGill and Kate Swoger. 

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