DNA sequencing solves mystery of earliest hybrid animal’s identity

Descriptions and images in Mesopotamian art and texts portray a powerful animal that pulled war chariots into battle and royal vehicles in parades. However, its true identity had long puzzled and divided archaeologists. Domestic horses only arrived in the region 4,000 years ago, known as the Fertile Crescent.

Intact skeletons of the creatures were buried next to high-status humans — the upper echelons of Bronze Age society — in the burial complex of Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, suggesting the animals held a very special position. Analysis of kunga teeth showed that they had bits in their mouths and were well fed.

However, the bones of horses, donkeys, donkeys, mules and other equines are very similar and difficult to distinguish, making it impossible to definitively identify the animal by examining the skeletons alone.

Now analysis of DNA extracted from the bones buried at Umm el-Marra has revealed that the animal was a cross between a donkey, which was domesticated at the time, and the now-extinct Syrian wild ass, sometimes called hemippe or an onager. .

This makes it the earliest evidence of breeding hybrids with parents from two different species, according to research published in the journal Science Advances Friday. It was probably deliberately created, trained and then exchanged between the elites of the time.

“Since hybrids tend to be sterile, this means that a remarkable level of energy has gone into constantly catching and raising wild onagers, breeding them with domestic donkeys, and then training these teams of prestigious kungas (which would only last one generation). last),” Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said via email. He was not involved in the investigation.

“It really shows the innovative and experimental nature of ancient people, which I think some people associate only with the modern world, and also their willingness to invest a lot of resources in the artificial creation of an expensive animal that is only used by and for elites. used.”

A panel depicting two individuals hunting wild asses dating to between 645-635 BCE (British Museum, London).  © Eva-Maria Geigl / IJM / CNRS-Université de Paris

war animal

Before the horse arrived, it was a challenge to find an animal that was willing to take on the fight, said Eva-Maria Geigl, head of research at CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) at the Université de Paris. and author of the study.

Though cattle and donkeys could pull chariots, they wouldn’t run to an opponent, she said.

“They weren’t used for war, and there were no domesticated horses then. The Sumerians, who wanted to go to war because they were really very powerful city-states, had to find another solution.”

The kunga skeletons buried in Umm el-Marra, Syria.

She thinks the first kunga came about naturally — a Syrian wild ass mated with a female donkey.

“They must have seen that the animal was more robust and trainable. They must have observed the result of this natural crossing and then they said OK, we will do that. For the first time in human history, we will bioengineer an animal. ”

However, it wouldn’t have been easy. The Syrian wild ass was considered aggressive and moved extremely quickly, she said.

Geigl said an earlier study of mitochondrial DNA, which revealed the female lineage, had found the kunga to be a hybrid. Only by analyzing the nuclear DNA could the scientists pinpoint the animal’s paternity.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers sequenced and compared the genomes of a 4,500-year-old kunga buried at Umm el-Marra in Syria, an 11,000-year-old Syrian wild ass found at Gobekli Tepe (the earliest known man-made site of worship in modern-day Turkey) and two of the last remaining Syrian wild asses, which became extinct in the early 20th century.

Arbunkle said most of the texts referring to kungas date back to the mid-2000s BC. By 2000 BC, he said, they had been replaced as migratory animals by horses and mules — a cross between a male donkey and a female horse.

The moment when domesticated horses changed the course of human history is now revealed

“This work confirms the idea that hybrids were, in fact, created by ancient Mesopotamians, which is very cool,” Arbuckle said.

“But we still don’t know how widespread this animal was, nor does it address additional questions related to other types of hybrid equines created in the Bronze Age. So there are many more questions.”

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