First animal hybrids were created by humans 4,500 years ago

(ORDO NEWS) — A new study shows that the Mesopotamians used crossbreeding of domestic donkeys and Syrian wild donkeys 500 years before they started using horses.

Archaeologists already suspected that the discovered skeleton belonged to a hybrid donkey, but did not know what creature it hybridized with.

Thanks to the genetic analysis of the ancient DNA of the bones, it was possible to find out the hybrid origin of these animals. The hybrids produced are called “Kungas” and are referred to in ancient sources as “chariot shooters”.

“We knew from the skeletons that they were Ekidis, but they didn’t measure up to donkeys or Syrian wild asses,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, a genomics specialist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris and co-author of the study. “So they were somehow different, although it wasn’t clear what the difference was.”

Ekids or horses (Equidae) are a family of mammals containing only one living genus, Equus. These are horse-like animals such as donkeys or zebras. Research shows that the Kungas were strong and fast hybrids, descended from a female domestic donkey and a male wild donkey.

Old records mention the kungas as highly valued and expensive animals, perhaps because of their complex breeding process, Geigl explains.

“Texts from the Diyala region of Mesopotamia and the kingdom of Ebla [Syria] state that the prices of these eqids were significant, six times the price of a donkey,” the study says. They were even used as dowries in royal marriages.

first animal hybrids were created by humans 4 500 years ago 2

Due to the sterility of kungs, like mules, they had to be created solely by mating a domestic donkey with a wild donkey, which was to be captured for the occasion. The difficulty could lie in the fact that wild donkeys could run faster than donkeys and even the kungs themselves. And besides, it was impossible to tame them.

“They really did bioengineer these hybrids,” confirms Geigl. “To the best of our knowledge, they were the first hybrids in history, and they had to make them every time they produced Kunga, which explains that they were very valuable.”

Kungs are mentioned in antiquity, on many clay tablets in Mesopotamian cuneiform. They are depicted on four-wheeled war chariots in a famous Sumerian mosaic from about 4,500 years ago and exhibited in the British Museum in London. They were used for diplomatic purposes, in ceremonies and in war. Large men’s kungs were used for vehicles of the “nobility and gods”. Smaller males and females were used in agriculture.

This species is now extinct and the last Syrian wild ass died in 1927. He was just over a meter tall and passed away at the oldest zoo in the world, the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria. The remains of this little donkey are kept in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The study used the genome of the bones of this last Syrian wild donkey to compare it to those of a 11,000-year-old wild donkey found in the archaeological enclave of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey.

The comparison showed that despite being of the same species, the ancient donkey was much larger. That is, in recent years, the Syrian wild ass has become smaller due to various environmental processes.

Historians believe it was the Sumerians who first bred the Kungas, at least 500 years before the first domesticated steppe horses were introduced north of the Caucasus Mountains, according to a 2020 study in the journal Science Advances. Records show that states that came after the Sumerians, such as the Assyrians, continued to breed and sell Kungas for centuries.

The bones of the kunga for this study were taken from the princely burial complex at Tell Umm el-Marren in northern Syria, dating from the Bronze Age, between 3000 B.C. e. and 2000 BC e.

Kungs could run faster than horses, so the practice of using them in war chariots probably continued after the introduction of domestic horses into Mesopotamia, the researchers say.

Perhaps over time, the need for hybrid animals began to subside because domesticated horses were easier to breed, Geigl says.

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