DNA sequencing solves the mystery of the identity of the earliest hybrid animal


Descriptions and images in Mesopotamian art and texts portray a powerful animal pulling chariots of war and royal vehicles in parades. Its true identity, however, had long puzzled and divided archaeologists. Domesticated horses did not arrive in the region, sometimes referred to as the fertile crescent, until 4,000 years ago.

Intact skeletons of the creatures were buried with high-status humans – 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 bites in their mouths and were well satiated.

However, the bones of horses, donkeys, asses, mules and other horses are uniform and difficult to distinguish from each other, making it impossible to definitively identify the animal by simply examining the skeletons.

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

This makes it the earliest evidence of hybrid breeding 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 among the elites of the time.

“Since hybrids are usually sterile, it means that there was a remarkable level of energy set aside to constantly capture and raise wild onagers, breed them with domestic donkeys, and then train these teams of prestigious kungas (who would only keep in a generation), “said Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via email. He was not involved in the research.

“It really shows the innovative and experimental nature of ancient people, which 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 to elites. “

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

War animals

Before the horse’s arrival, it was a challenge to find an animal willing to go into battle, said Eva-Maria Geigl, research director at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) at the Université de Paris and author of the study.

While cattle and donkeys could pull carts, they would not run against an opponent, she said.

“They were not used to wage war, and there were no domestic horses at that time. The Sumerians, who wanted to wage war because they were really very powerful city-states, had to find another solution.”

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

She believes that the first king arose naturally – a Syrian wild donkey paired with a donkey female.

“They must have seen that the animal was more robust and more trained. 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 bioengineer want an animal.”

However, it would not have been easy. The Syrian wild donkey was considered aggressive and was moving extremely fast, 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 researchers were able to designate the paternity of the animal.

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

Arbunkle said that most texts referring to kungas date from the mid-2,000s BC, and were unlikely to have been bred before 3,000 BC. – when donkeys appear in the archaeological record. By 2,000 BC, he said, they had been replaced as dragging animals with horses and mules – a cross between a donkey and a female horse.

The moment tamed horses changed human history has now been revealed

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

“But we still do not know how widespread this animal was, nor does it address further issues related to other types of hybrid ungulates created in the Bronze Age. So there are many more issues.”

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