The first man-made hybrid animal was discovered in Mesopotamia

In ancient Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, long before horses came to the area, another active member of the equine family, the Kunga, played a key role in bringing four-wheeled cargo to the battlefield. Archaeologists have speculated that these animals (depicted in art, sold on cuneiform, and their bodies sometimes placed in wealthy burial sites) were the result of some kind of fusion. But there was no evidence to prove this.

On Friday, a group of researchers reported the results of more than a decade of their research in the journal Science Advances. Ancient DNA studies showed that the kunga was the result of a cross between a female donkey (Equus Africanus asinus) And the male Syrian wild donkey (Equus hemionus hemippus) have been.

The kunga is the first known example of a hybrid animal engineered by humans and derived from two species. This product goes far beyond traditional animal domestication processes. Eva Maria Geigel, an archaeologist at the University of Paris and one of the scientists who conducted the study, said that the production of kung was really a basic bioengineering that became a kind of ancient biotechnology industry.

Like mules, which are hybrids between horses and donkeys and were created much later, the Kunghas were barren. Each new kunga was a unique animal, the result of a cross between a wild stallion and a donkey.

As modern records have shown, stallions, although very aggressive, had to be captured and kept in captivity. Dr. Gigel said the director of the zoo in Austria, where the last captured Syrian wild donkeys died, described them as “very fierce”.

Archaeologist Jill Weber

Kungha bones were exhumed about ten years ago by Jill Weber, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Amalmara in northern Syria.

Archaeological records show that the breeding center in Nagar (present-day Tel Brock in Syria) sent young herds to other cities. They were expensive animals and symbols of human status and were used in wars and military ceremonies.

Dr. Gigel said the Kunghas had a high status for at least 500 years. Horses did not appear until about 4,000 years ago to replace them in wars and ceremonies and to be used to create other hybrids.

Prior to the current study, the oldest known hybrid was a mule from an archeological site in Turkey dating back 3,000 years, and its discovery was announced in 2020.

The researchers had to work on fossils that were not well-preserved because they remained in the desert, but they used a variety of techniques to study ancient DNA. Laurent Franz, a paleogenomic expert at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich who did not participate in the study, said the results were very convincing despite the fact that people were working on equine hybrids long before horses arrived.

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Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at the University of Washington in San Luis who has researched the historical background of donkeys and their domestication, said the study was very interesting because it showed that the producers of the animals had clear goals. The initial process of domestication was always vague (probably partly accidental and partly human intervention), but this study showed what the ancient Syrian people were looking for.

“People wanted the quality of a wild animal,” Marshall said.

Donkeys may have been more tamed than their ancestors (African wild donkeys), but Mesopotamian breeders wanted to intersect with other wild donkeys to achieve desirable traits such as strength, speed, and possibly size.

Although the last known living specimens of the Syrian wild donkey were very small and slightly taller than three feet (91 cm) in height, the older animals of this species were larger.

The role of the ancient Syrian hybrid kunga / Standard of Ur

Kunghaha, bottom row, shown in “Flag Over”, a wooden box decorated with ancient Sumer, around 2500 BC

Researchers sequenced DNA from a variety of sources, including modern donkeys, horses and several species of wild donkeys, and museum specimens.

The bones of the 44 kungas buried in a burial site in Syria called Umm al-Mura were of special importance. These skeletons had previously led researchers to hypothesize that the Kunghas were hybrids and the same animals described in inscriptions and depicted in art.

The traces on the conga teeth showed that they were fed a special diet. The new study used the DNA of these cones to compare them to other species and found that the animals were thought to be the result of a cross between a female donkey and a Syrian wild donkey.

The researchers also sequenced the DNA of a Syrian wild donkey found in Goebbels in Turkey. Gobeklitepe is an 11,000-year-old area where humans gathered for purposes that are still being studied. They also sequenced two specimens of the last animals of this species kept at the Vienna Zoo.

Konga is a species that no longer exists. Dr. Andrew Bennett, another author of the article, said that Kunga could not be recreated. Of course, donkeys are plentiful, but the last Syrian wild donkeys died in the late 1920s. One of them was shot in the wild and the other died in a zoo in Vienna. Dr. Bennett said the recipe for the Kunga had remained unknown for thousands of years, “and we finally deciphered it 100 years after one of its components became extinct.”

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