Somali Wild Ass from Basel Zoo

The Medieval Zebro

In the Early Middle Ages a peculiar animal named the Zebro ran wild on the Iberian peninsula. Was it a zebra? A wild ass? A wild horse? Or the descendant of feral horses, which had run wild? New research opens the debate.

Sorraia Horses
Sorraia Horses

In 1145 the municipality in Coimbra listed a series of artifacts on sale in their city and named their prices. On this list were shoes made of cowhide and skin from rams and calf plus goat-skin from Cordoba. But listed were also shoes made of skin from an animal called a “Zebro” (or Zevro in Portuguese) – “Zapatos zebrunos et bezerrunos untados pro X denarios” [1]. The question is of course whether these shoes were made from the hide of an African Zebra?

The answer is definitely no. Already in mid 20th century philologists tried to trace the etymology of the word (e)zebro, (e)cebro or (e)zevro. They found that it was derived from equus ferus (lit: “wild horse”) and that it was only later – after it had been applied by the Portuguese to the real African Zebras in the Early Modern period – that the myth was fostered that the two beasts were related. The last part is definitely true.

However, this cannot really solve the mystery of what the beast in fact was, which – according to toponymic data – seemed to roam the wilderness of North Western Iberia in the Early Middle Ages until the 14th century. At the end of the 16th century it was de facto extinct, having slowly receeded into the last wild habitats in Southern Spain. Since then people have debated hotly what kind of animal it really was.

Recently a group of scientists published  an overview of the evidence; and even if their conclusion is still tentative, the history seems to read as a case of how to combine philological, toponymic and achaeo-zoological evidence in this quest for an elusive animal.

What did it look like?

Zebra in Cantigas de Santa Maria ©Escorial
Zebra in “Cantigas de Santa Maria” from the 13th century ©Escorial

Two medieval descriptions of the animal exist.

In 1265 Brunetto Latini in his encyclopedia wrote (in Italian) that “Zebros are a kind of animals living in parts of Spain in the Old Castille and which are larger than red deer. And they have very long ears. And they have a dorsal stripe in their skin as does a mule. And they have slender hooves [the text says cleaved hooves but this is probably a misreading]. And their meat is very good to eat. And they are so fast that men cannot make friends of them [domesticate them].”

In another description from 1576 it says they looked like ash-greyish mares, with a coat similar to that of rats, and with a slightly blackish muzzle (perhaps meaning “sulky nature”).

Apart from the toponymic evidence – 155 instances – which gives us an overview of the prevalence of the animal, there exists a rather extensive list of clauses in the form of the “Forais” – local Portuguese laws from the 12th and 13th centuries. These outlined the privileges of settlers in the newly conquered land. According to these, the hides of zebros were used as leather and the meat was eaten. The interesting thing here is of course that the zebros were considered on par with deer and roe – and not as wild horses (in which case eating might have been forbidden). It appears from these “Forais” that they were hunted with either traps or from horseback with bow and arrows or spears. It is generally believed that their extinction came as a result of avid hunting induced by the fact that they were considered an agricultural pest once forests – their natural habitat – gave way to cultivation.

Taxonomy

But what were the origins of the Zebro? Was it a

  • descendant of the European Wild Ass (the Equus Hydruntus)? (otherwise thought to have become extinct in the Holocene)
  • hemione or Asiatic wild ass introduced to Iberia by the Muslims?
  • Sorraia Mustang (which later became the American Mustang)? And as such a descendant of the Przewalski horse?
  • feral equid? That is the descendant of horses or asses, which had escaped humans to live in the wild?

The authors of the latest zoological overview conclude that the last option is probably the most likely. However, it is obvious they believe it was probably a kind of wild horse.

Wild Asses

Somali Wild Ass web
Somali Wild Asses

Although they briefly mention it, there is bit of evidence, which the scientists discard and which perhaps might bring us nearer a solution. In a very sympathetic way the group of scientists point out the fact that the wild ass, which is mentioned several times in the bible, consistently is translated as Onoager (Latin) and Zebro (in vernacular Spanish). A rather famous example  from the General Estoria of Alfonso X (the Wise) from the 13th century even claims that the Onager is in fact “what we in our language call a mountain ass or a “enzebro”. About the same Alfonso we are told that he liked to hunt in the newly conquered Southern Spain, especially for boars and zebros.

The reason, however, why the scientists disregard this specific definition is that it does not fit with the etymology of the word, which they subscribe to: from equus ferus to (e)zebro, (e)cebro or (e)zero (see above). It appears a wild horse cannot be a wild ass. However, the challenge remains that we cannot really understand why people in Medieval Iberia – who must have been well acquainted with both horses and asses of all sorts – should not place this animal securely in the correct category? And hence, refrain from eating it. Especially since that is exactly what they seem to have tried to be allowed to do by defining it as an ass.

One source of confusion is obviously also that the scientist do not discuss the most obvious option, which is that the Zebro is a descendant not of the Otranto ass (the ancient European Ass, which presumably died out in the Holocene) but in fact the wild asses, which the Romans imported from Northern Africa to Italy and which they in all probability also introduced to Iberia at the same time. The Iberian Zebro may thus very well be descendant of either the Atlas Wild Ass, which the Romans hunted to extinction in Algeria in the 4th century or the Somali Wild Ass, which is nearly extinct. Both these animals were common guests in the Roman Arenas and had and have those striped legs, which might later have induced the Portuguese seafarers exploring Africa to name the zebras they met as zebros.

A tiger bringing down a wild ass the gladiator mosaic at the Roman villa in Nennig Germany
A tiger bringing down a wild ass the gladiator mosaic at the Roman villa in Nennig Germany. Source: Wikipedia

This is further substantiated by the fact that recent philological investigation into the etymology of the word does not point to it having Latin roots. Contrary to this a group of philologists from São Paulo have argued that the etymological roots are in fact Suebic.

Their argument runs as follows

proto-idg. *dibhro- ≈ *dībhro- > germânico *tibra- > suevo *[‘tseßra] → suevo *[ən’tseßra] > iberorromânico do noroeste *on[ts]evra ≈ *on[dz]evra galego-português *enzevra > *ezevra ~ *ezevro > azebra ~ azebro > zebra (“equino extinto ibérico” >> “equino de origem africana”) [hip. nova]. [2]

With the original meaning of Germanic “*tibra” as “offer” (gift or oblation) it is highly likely that the – probably partly pagan – Germanic settlers in the 5th century found an attractive wild horse-like creature, which might be hunted, sacrificed and eaten. However, it is also highly unlikely that they would have called the animal something different than “ros” if it had in fact been a horse. Later the animals were classified by the Christian descendants of the Germanic invaders as “deer”, which made it acceptable to continue hunting and eating them.

One option is thus that the Iberian Zebro was in fact not just a descendent of some wild feral equine, but in fact the precise descendants of some of the asses, which must have been imported to Iberia and used in arenas or domesticated as donkeys. And which in all probability were able to abscond from time to time and run wild.

Perhaps one day, a lucky find of the archaeological remains of some medieval dinner might give us the answer via DNA

 

[1] Portugaliae monumenta historica : a saeculo octavo post Christum usque ad quintumdecimum. Vol I. f. V., p. 743.
By Alexandre Herculano
Published by: Academiae Scientiarum Olisiponensis edita. – Olisipone : typis Academicis, 1856-1977

[2] O “Zebro”: Consideações Historicas, sua identificação e distribuição geográfica, origem da palavra “zebra”2 e consideraçoões sobre etimologia
By Nelson Papaveo and Mário Eduardo Viaro
In: Arquivos do NEHiLP Vol 6: 1, pp. 1 – 198. Here quoted from p. 164
FFLCH/USP, São Paulo 2014

SOURCE:

The Iberian Zebro: what kind of a beast was it?
By Carlos Noresa, Arturo Morales Muñizb, Laura Llorente Rodríguezc, E. Andrew Bennettd and Eva-María Geigle
In: Anthropozoologica 50(1):21-32. 2015