Ancient Mesopotamians created the world’s first animal hybrids 4,500 years ago

Blending a female domestic donkey and a male wild ass produced kungas.

A donkey-ass hybrid in Bronze Age Mesopotamia stands as the earliest recorded instance of human-bred hybrid animals, a new study says. The bones of these horse-like beings, dating back 4,500 years, settle longstanding debates about the identity of these ancient creatures.

After meticulous DNA sequencing, researchers at the Jacques Monod Institute (CNRS/Université de Paris) reached the conclusion that the bones belonged to the kungas, which are offspring resulting from the crossbreeding of a female domestic donkey and a male wild ass.

They published the findings in the journal Science Advances

Discovered in 2006 within the royal tomb of Tell Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, the bones of 25 animals, now identified as kungas, presented complete skeletons resembling horses but with distinct proportions. Intriguingly, horses were not introduced to the region until 500 years later.

It wasn't until the researchers compared the genomes of these skeletons with those of other species that they concluded the equids were hybrids.

DNA sequencing from an 11,000-year-old equid bone in Turkey and 19th-century teeth and hair from the last-surviving Syrian wild asses confirmed the kungas' maternal lineage from the domestic donkey and paternal lineage from the Syrian wild ass.

The researchers hypothesize that this unique mix combined the temperament of a donkey with the speed of a wild ass, resulting in a stronger and faster kunga, more easily tamed than an ass and fetching a price up to six times that of a donkey.

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Depicted in ancient texts and icons from Mesopotamia, these enigmatic equids played roles in diplomacy, ceremonies, and warfare. Larger kungas served as draft animals for vehicles, while their smaller counterparts assisted in agricultural tasks like plowing.

This ancient Syro-Mesopotamian civilization showcased an advanced understanding of intentional hybrid breeding in order to the incorporate desirable traits from each parent species, the study's authors stressed.

However, the kungas could not survive competition with larger, stronger, and faster relatives – horses – which were introduced to the region 4,000 years ago. Thanks to easier reproduction, horses put the kungas on the extinction path within one or two hundred years.

Kungas remain the first documented hybrid in human history. Since then, people have ventured into breeding various hybrids, from the Beefalo to Iron Age pigs. Most domestic animals today are hybrids.


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