Scientists have sequenced the genes of an animal skeleton and found that 4,500 years ago, Bronze Age “bioengineers” created the first hybrid animal — a majestic horse-like creature called kunga, a cross between a female domestic donkey and a male Syrian wild donkey.
Mesopotamian art and records describe strong animals that could pull chariots in battle and royal vehicles in parades. However, archaeologists have long debated their identity. The house horse didn’t appear in the area — the fertile Crescent — until 4,000 years ago, so what the creature really was was a mystery.
Archaeologists have found the remains of the animal in the northern Syrian region of Umm Mara, buried next to aristocrats whose remains are still well preserved — all members of the upper class of the Bronze Age, suggesting a special status for the animal. Archaeologists studying the teeth of kunga donkeys have found that they were carefully cared for.
However, the bones of horses, domestic donkeys, wild donkeys, mules, and other equids are all so similar that they are difficult to tell apart, making it impossible to identify the animal by studying the skeleton alone.
Now, by sequencing the genes of animal skeletons found in the area, scientists have found that the animal was a cross between the domestic donkey of the time and the extinct Syrian wild donkey, also known as the Syrian wild donkey or Persian wild donkey.
This is the earliest known example of interbreeding between two different species, according to research published in Science Advances. And it was probably deliberately created, trained and nurtured.
“The hybrid species were sterile, which meant they spent a lot of energy catching and breeding wild donkeys and then mating them with domestic donkeys. When they have offspring, they have to be carefully trained (they are sterile, so they can only survive one generation).” Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, said in an email. He was not involved in the study.
“It does show the innovative and experimental spirit of the ancients, but I think these people were more concerned about the world of fashion and were more willing to invest a lot of resources and manpower into creating an expensive animal that was only for the elite.”
Before horses, it was difficult to find an animal that could be domesticated and put into use in warfare, said Eva Maria Geiger, head of research at the CNRS (France’s National Centre for Scientific Research) at the University of Paris and a study participant. She said that while cows and donkeys can pull carts, they will not be ordered to run at the enemy.
“Oxen and donkeys are not made for war, and the domestic horse has not yet appeared. The Sumerians were very powerful, so if they wanted to start a war, they had to find another way to do it.”
She believes the first kunga appeared naturally — a male Syrian wild donkey mated with a female domestic donkey.
“People are definitely looking for stronger, more submissive animals. They must have also observed the natural process by which the species emerged, and decided to breed the species they wanted that way. This was the beginning of human initiative in breeding hybrid animals.” However, it will not be easy. The Syrian wild ass is said to be very aggressive and fast. “She added.
Early mitochondrial DNA studies on the Kunga donkey revealed only its maternal characteristics and found it to be a hybrid, Geiger said. It was only through nuclear genetic testing that scientists were able to determine its paternity.
To do this, the scientists not only compared the genomes of a 4,500-year-old Kunga donkey found at Umm Marra in Syria with those of an 11,000-year-old Syrian wild donkey found at Gobekli Tepe, the earliest known man-made memorial site. They also compared their genomes with those of the last two Syrian wild asses that died in the early 20th century.
According to Arbuckle, most literature dates kunga donkeys to around 2000 BC, so they were first bred no later than 3000 BC — which is when donkeys were first recorded in the area. By 2000 BC, he says, the kunga donkey had been replaced by horses and mules, the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
“This discovery proves that ancient Mesopotamians were the first humans to interbreed animals, which is really cool.” Arbuckle said.
“But we still don’t know how widespread this animal was, and this study doesn’t address other questions about other types of hybrid equids that emerged during the Bronze Age. So we still have a lot of questions to answer.”