Tech UPTechnologyThe first hybrids created by humans are from 4500...

The first hybrids created by humans are from 4500 years ago

Archaeologists already suspected that it was a hybrid donkey, but they did not know with which horse it had hybridized. The hybrid origin of these animals has been discovered thanks to genetic analyzes of ancient DNA from the bones of these animals. The hybrids produced are called “kungas” and are referred to in ancient sources as “car shooters”.

“We knew from the skeletons that they were equids, but they did not fit the size of donkeys or Syrian wild asses,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, a genomics specialist at the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris and co-author of the study. “So they were different in some ways, although it wasn’t clear what the difference was .”

Equidae or equines (Equidae) are a family of mammals that contains only one living genus, Equus. They are animals similar to horses, such as donkeys or zebras. The study shows that the kungas were strong, fast and sterile hybrids of a female domestic donkey and a male wild ass (Equus hemionus hemippus) or onager (Equus hemionus), an equid native to the region. Ancient records mention kungas as prized and expensive animals, perhaps due to the complex process involved in raising them, Geigl explains. “Texts from the Diyala region in Mesopotamia and from the kingdom of Ebla [Syria] state that the prices of these equids were considerable, costing up to six times the price of a donkey,” the study states. They were even used as dowry in royal marriages.

Due to the sterility of the kungas, like the mules (sterile hybrid of mare and donkey), they had to be produced only by mating a domestic donkey with a wild ass , which had to be captured for the occasion. The difficulty could be that the wild asses could run faster than the donkeys and even the kungas themselves. And besides, it was impossible to tame them.

“They really bioengineered these hybrids,” Geigl defends. “They were the first hybrids in history, as far as we know, and they had to be made every time they produced a kunga, which explains why they were so valuable.”

The kungas are mentioned in ancient times, on many clay tablets in cuneiform writing from Mesopotamia. They are depicted pulling four-wheeled war chariots in the famous “Banner of Ur,” a Sumerian mosaic from about 4,500 years ago and on display in the British Museum in London. They were used for diplomacy, in ceremonies and in war. The large male kungas were used to pull the vehicles of the “nobility and gods”. The smaller males and females were used for agriculture, often pulling plows.

This species is now extinct and the last Syrian wild ass died in 1927 . He was not much more than a meter tall and died in the oldest zoo in the world, the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria. The remains of that little donkey are preserved in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The research used the genome of the bones of this last Syrian wild ass to compare it with the bones of an 11,000-year-old wild ass , unearthed at the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site, Turkey.

The comparison revealed that, despite being of the same species, the ancient donkey was much larger. In other words, the Syrian wild ass has become smaller in recent years due to various environmental pressures, such as hunting.

Historians believe it was the Sumerians who first bred 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 indicate that states that came after the Sumerians, such as the Assyrians, continued to breed and sell kungas for centuries . Proof of this is the stone relief found in Nineveh (the Assyrian capital) and preserved in the British Museum, where two men appear with a captured wild ass controlled by ropes (image D).

In fact, the kunga bones for the present study come from a princely funerary complex at Tell Umm el-Marra , northern Syria, dating to around the Bronze Age, between 3000 B.C. C. and 2000 a. C. This site is thought to be the ruins of the ancient city of Tuba, which is mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions.

Jill Weber is an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the publication. He was one of the people responsible for excavating the bones, about 10 years ago. Weber had already proposed that the animals at Tell Umm el-Marra were kungas, because their teeth had harness marks and wear patterns that showed they had been fed on purpose, rather than grazed like normal donkeys.

Kungas could run faster than horses, so the practice of using them to pull war chariots likely continued after the introduction of domestic horses to Mesopotamia, Weber argues.

And, after such a boom, the last kungas died out and no more wild donkeys and asses were bred, probably because domesticated horses were easier to breed, says Geigl. From bearing gods to being buried forever.

The paper is titled The genetic identity of the earliest human-made hybrid animals, the kungas of Syro-Mesopotamia and was published January 14 in Science Advance.

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