DNA sequencing solves mystery of identity of first hybrid animal

Descriptions and images in Mesopotamian art and texts depict a mighty animal that pulled war chariots in battle and royal vehicles in parades. His true identity, however, has long puzzled and divided archaeologists. Domesticated horses only arrived in the area, sometimes called the Fertile Crescent, 4,000 years ago.

Intact skeletons of the creatures were buried alongside high-ranking people – the upper crust of Bronze Age society – at the Umm el-Marra burial complex in northern Syria, suggesting that the animals occupied 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 equids are very similar and difficult to tell apart, making it impossible to definitively identify the animal simply by examining the skeletons.

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

This makes it the first evidence of breeding hybrid animals with parents of two different species, according to research published in the journal Science Advances Friday. He was probably intentionally created, trained and then traded among the elites of the time.

“As the hybrids are generally sterile, that means there was a remarkable level of energy devoted to constantly capturing and raising wild onagers, rearing them with domestic donkeys, and then training these teams of prestigious kungas (who would only last a generation),” Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said by email. He did not participate in the research.

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

animal of war

Before the arrival of the horse, finding an animal ready to go into battle was a challenge, said Eva-Maria Geigl, research director at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) at the University of Paris and author of the study.

Although cattle and donkeys can pull carts, they would not run towards an opponent, she said.

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

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

She believes the first kunga was born naturally – a Syrian wild ass mated to a female donkey.

“They must have seen that the animal was more robust and more trainable. They had to observe the result of this natural crossing and then they said OK, we will do it. For the first time in the history of mankind , we’re going to bio-engineer an animal.”

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

Geigl said an earlier mitochondrial DNA study, which revealed female lineage, found the kunga to be a hybrid. It was only with nuclear DNA analysis that scientists were able to identify the paternity of the animal.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers sequenced and compared the genomes of a 4,500-year-old kunga buried in Umm el-Marra in Syria, an 11,000-year-old Syrian wild ass found in Gobekli Tepe (the oldest place known man-made). of worship in modern Turkey) and two of the last surviving Syrian wild asses, which disappeared in the early 20th century.

Arbunkle said most texts referring to kungas date from the mid-2000s BC, and they were unlikely to have been bred before 3000 BC – when donkeys appear in the archaeological record. Around 2000 BC, he said, they had been replaced as draft animals by horses and mules – a cross between a male donkey and a mare.

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

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

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