The oldest known hybrid animal of human origin was a “Kunga”

Four horse-like skeletons lie side by side in an excavation pit.

Four kunga skeletons lying in situ in Umm el-Marra, Syria
Photo: Glenn Schwartz / Johns Hopkins University.

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

Kungas were valuable in Mesopotamia, costing up to six times more like a donkey. Large equids were used in royal dowries, to pull elite vehicles and tow chariots of war, while smaller kungas were used in agriculture. But their identity has long been disputed; some researchers thought that kungas were just onagers, a kind of wild ass.

To understand the kunga true identity, researchers have delved into the ancient skeletons of an unknown equine animal buried in Syria, the last surviving genetic material of a species of donkey and the evolutionary history of the genus Equus. The conclusions of the collaboration were published today in Science Advances.

“The combination of ancient genomes, funerary treatment and archaeological records suggests that these hybrid animals correspond to the precious kungas,” said study co-author Eva-Maria Geigl, an expert in paleogenomics at the University of Paris, in an email. . “Analysis of these ancient genomes has both resolved a long-standing controversy and identified the first man-made equine hybrids, underscoring their pivotal role in ‘the art of war’ centuries before the arrival of the first domestic horses in the region.”

hybrid animals are the result of reproduction between different species. Animals are mostly always sterile (like the mule, the donkey-horse hybrid, or the liger, the lion-tiger hybrid), meaning they must be bred intentionally in each individual case. The size and speed of kungas made them more useful than donkeys for towing vehicles.

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

A 4,500-year-old panel from the Standard of Ur, which depicts kungas pulling chariots.
Photo: Thierry Grange / IJM / CNRS-University of Paris

The team analyzed 25 equine skeletons found in a 4,500-year-old elite cemetery about 34 miles east of Aleppo, Syria. Some of the animals appeared to have been deliberately killed for burial. Analysis of the equines indicated that the creatures were not horses, donkeys or onagers. This led researchers to believe it could be a hybrid animal. The teeth of the skeletons were worn, suggesting that in life they wore bits.

To certify the identity of the skeletons, the team compared genetic samples of the bones to a sample of equines from the famous archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey and to the last surviving Syrian wild donkeys (now dead), which are preserved at the Natural History Museum. from Vienna, Austria.

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

“It is surprising that these ancient societies considered something as complex as hybrid breeding, since it was an intentional act: they had the domesticated donkey, they knew that they could not domesticate the donkey. wild of Syria, and they didn’t domesticate the horses,” Geigl said. noted. “So they intentionally developed a strategy to breed two different species to combine different traits that they found desirable in each of the parent species.”

It is unknown what coat color the kungas could have had; so far scholars have moved away from Sumerian depictions of animals, as in the Standard of Ur, says Geigl. Genetics might be the only hope to answer this question, as it will certainly not be solved by breeding: the Syrian wild ass became extinct in 1929. With its extinction, the kunga also became extinct. But more genetic research and other archaeological findings might at least help us better describe this not-so-distant history.

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