DNA sequencing uncovers the identity of the first hybrid animal

18th January, 2022.      //   General Interest  // 
Jill Weber, an author of the study, excavating equid burials at Umm el-Marra, Syria. © Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University.

Jill Weber, an author of the study, excavating equid burials at Umm el-Marra, Syria. © Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University.

According to recent research based on DNA sequencing from the animal’s skeleton, Bronze Age bioengineers developed the earliest hybrid animal — a gorgeous horselike creature known as a kunga that had a donkey mom and a Syrian wild ass for a father and lived 4,500 years ago.

Detail of the "War panel" of the "Standard of Ur," exhibited in the British Museum, London, which depicts Kungas pulling wagons. Thierry Grange/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris

Detail of the “War panel” of the “Standard of Ur,” exhibited in the British Museum, London, which depicts Kungas pulling wagons. Thierry Grange/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris


In Mesopotamian art and writings, descriptions and pictures depict a mighty animal that drew war wagons into combat and royal carriages in parades. However, archaeologists had long been perplexed and disagreed about its true identity. Domesticated horses didn’t arrive until 4,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, which is frequently referred to as the Fertile Crescent. At the burial complex of Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, intact skeletons of the beasts were buried alongside high-status people — the upper crust of Bronze Age civilization — implying that the animals held a particularly special place. Kunga teeth were found to have pieces in their mouths and to be well-fed. It is impossible to definitively ID an animal simply by inspecting its skeleton because the bones of horses, donkeys, asses, mules, and other equids are remarkably similar and difficult to distinguish apart.

The animal was a hybrid between a donkey, which was domesticated at the time, and the now-extinct Syrian wild ass, often called hemippe or a onager, according to DNA retrieved from the bones buried at Umm el-Marra.
According to the research published in the journal Science Advances Friday, this is the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding with parents from two different species. It was most likely conceived, trained, and then exchanged among the day’s aristocracy.

Through email, Benjamin Arbuckle, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, “Since hybrids are usually sterile, it means there was a remarkable level of energy devoted to constantly capture and raise wild onagers, breeding them with domestic donkeys, and then training these teams of prestigious kungas (which would only last for one generation). He was not a part of the research.
“It demonstrates ancient people’s imaginative and experimental nature, which I believe some people only equate with the modern world, as well as their willingness to invest a lot of money in the artificial production of a costly animal used only by and for elites.”

A panel showing two individuals hunting wild asses that dates to between 645-635 BCE (British Museum, London)

A panel showing two individuals hunting wild asses that dates to between 645-635 BCE (British Museum, London)

War animal
Before the arrival of the horse, finding an animal willing to charge into battle was a challenge, 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. While cattle and donkeys could pull wagons, they wouldn’t run toward an adversary, she said.
“They were not used for making war, and there were no domestic horses at the time. The Sumerians, who wanted to make war because they were really very powerful city states, they had to find another solution.”

She thinks the first kunga came into being naturally — a Syrian wild ass mated with a female donkey.
“They must have seen that the animal was more robust and more 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 thought to be aggressive and moved extremely quickly, she said. Geigl said an earlier study of mitochondrial DNA , which revealed the female line, had found that the kunga was a hybrid. It was only with analysis of the nuclear DNA that the scientists were able to pinpoint the paternity of the animal.

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

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

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To reach 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 human-made place of worship in modern-day Turkey) and two of the last surviving Syrian wild asses, which went extinct in the early 20th century.
Arbunkle said that most texts referring to kungas date from the mid-2,000s BC, and it was unlikely they were bred earlier than 3,000 BC — when donkeys appear in the archaeological record. By 2,000 BC, he said, they had been replaced as pulling animals by horses and mules — a cross between a male donkey and female horse.

“This work settles 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 and it also doesn’t address additional questions relating to other types of hybrid equids created in the Bronze Age. So there are plenty more questions.”

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