Oldest known human-bred hybrid animal was a ‘Kunga’

Four horse-like skeletons lie side by side in a construction pit.

Four kunga skeletons lie on site in Umm el-Marra, Syria
Photo: Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University.

A team of geneticists, archaeologists and paleontologists believe that they have established the identity of an enigmatic equidae from ancient Mesopotamia. That animal is a kunga, which the researchers show was a cross between a female donkey and a male Syrian wild ass.

Kungas were valuable in Mesopotamia and cost up to six times as much like a donkey. The large equines were used in royal dowries, to pull elite vehicles and tow chariots in war, while smaller kungas were used in agriculture. But their identity has long been questioned; some researchers thought kungas were just onagers, a type of wild donkey.

To find out the kungas true identity, the researchers turned to ancient skeletons of an unknown equidae buried in Syria, the last remaining genetic material of a donkey species, and the evolutionary history of the genus equus. The findings of the collaboration were: published Today in Science Progress.

“The combination of the ancient genomes, the burial treatment and the archaeological data suggest that these hybrid animals correspond to the valuable kungas,” said study co-author Eva-Maria Geigl, an expert in paleonomics at the University of Paris, in an email. . . “The analysis of these ancient genomes resolved a longstanding controversy and identified the earliest human-made equine hybrids, highlighting their critical role in the ‘art of war’ centuries before the first domesticated horses arrived in the area.”

Hybrid animals are the result of breeding between different species. The animals are usually always sterile (such as mules, the donkey-horse hybrid or the liger, the lion-tiger hybrid), meaning that they must be bred intentionally in each individual case. The size and speed of kungas made them more useful than donkeys for pulling vehicles.

Two red chariots are pulled by teams of beige kungas in this ancient Mesopotamian artwork.

A panel from the 4,500-year-old Standard of Ur, depicting kungas carrying chariots.
Photo: Thierry Grange / IJM / CNRS-Université de Paris

The team analyzed 25 equine skeletons found at a 4,500-year-old elite cemetery about 54 miles east of Aleppo, Syria. Some animals were found to have been deliberately killed for burial. Analysis of the equines revealed that the creatures were not horses, donkeys, or onagers. That led researchers to believe they might be a hybrid animal. The skeletons’ teeth were worn out, suggesting they wore bits in life.

To certify the skeletons’ identity, the team compared genetic samples of the bones to a horse-like sample from Turkey’s famous Göbekli Tepe archaeological site and to the last remaining Syrian wild asses (now dead), which are preserved in the Natural History Museum. Museum of Vienna, in Austria.

Using polymerase chain reaction and shotgun sequencing to amplify the DNA, the researchers found that the Turkish sample was the same species as the animals preserved in Austria, representing the paternal lineage of the skeletons in Syria. The donkey (E. africanus) was the maternal line of the mysterious equines, and, based on the Y chromosome fragments from the samples, the Syrian wild ass or hemippe (E. hemionus) was the paternal line. Later Syrian wild asses were smaller than kungas, so the team argues that the surviving wild asses were a smaller descendant of earlier members of the species.

“It’s surprising to see that these ancient societies envisioned something as complex as hybrid breeding, as this was a deliberate act: they had the domesticated donkey, they knew they couldn’t domesticate the Syrian wild ass, and they didn’t have any horses domesticated,” Geigl said. said. “So they deliberately developed a strategy of breeding two different species to combine different characters that they found desirable in each of the parent species.”

It is not known what coat color the kungas had; until now, researchers have relied on Sumerian depictions of the animals, such as in the Standard of Ursaid Geigl. Genetics may be the only hope of answering that question, because it certainly won’t be answered through breeding: The Syrian wild ass went extinct in 1929. With its extinction, the kunga also died out. But more genetic research and other archaeological finds could at least help us better visualize this not-so-distant history.

More: Medieval war horses were actually quite small, study shows

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