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Mesopotamians bred powerful donkey hybrids for warfare, study finds

People in ancient Mesopotamia created a super-strong hybrid animal by crossing domestic donkeys with wild donkeys, a new genome sequencing study reveals.

Researchers in Paris have studied genomes of equine skeletons found at a 4,500-year-old cemetery in Umm el-Marra in northern Syria.

Results suggest that the skeletons once belonged to a domesticated hybrid animal called a “kunga” — a cross between female donkeys and male Syrian wild asses — and therefore provide the earliest known evidence of hybrid breeding.

People didn’t ride kungas, according to the experts; instead, the animals were probably used to transport goods and equipment and to pull chariots into battle.

The size and speed of kungas made these hybrid animals a better option than donkeys for towing four-wheeled war chariots.

Kungas were produced in the region 500 years before the arrival of domestic horses by societies in Mesopotamia – the historical region of Western Asia.

Sumerians – people from southern Mesopotamia – have been known to use horse-drawn four-wheeled war chariots on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous ‘Standard of Ur’, a 4,500-year-old Sumerian mosaic.

Umm el-Marra (Northern Syria) is a 4,500-year-old princely burial complex.  Several equines have been found on the site, buried in their own installations

Umm el-Marra (Northern Syria) is a 4,500-year-old princely burial complex. Several equines have been found on the site, buried in their own installations

The Sumerians—the people of southern Mesopotamia—have used horse-drawn four-wheeled war chariots on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous 'Standard of Ur', a 4,500-year-old Sumerian mosaic.

The Sumerians—the people of southern Mesopotamia—have used horse-drawn four-wheeled war chariots on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous ‘Standard of Ur’, a 4,500-year-old Sumerian mosaic.

WHAT WERE KUNGAS?

Kungas were “highly esteemed” domesticated hybrid animals used for diplomacy, ceremony and warfare in ancient Mesopotamia.

They were a cross between female donkeys and male Syrian wild ass, new genome analysis shows. They cost up to six times the price of a donkey.

Large male kungas were used to pull the vehicles of ‘nobility and gods’.

Researchers say, “The precise taxonomic determination of the kunga and its identification in the archaeological record has been uncertain until now.”

The new study was conducted by paleogeneticists at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, France.

‘Kungas were F1 hybrids between female house donkeys and male hemippes’ [Syrian wild ass], documenting the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding,” they say.

“Large male kungas were used to pull the vehicles of ‘nobility and gods,’ and their size and speed made them more attractive than donkeys for towing four-wheeled war chariots.”

Mesopotamia was a historic region of the Middle East that spanned most of what is now known as Iraq, but also extended into parts of Syria and Turkey.

Domestic horses in the region date back 4,000 years, according to previous findings from the same research group published in 2020, while the new find dates to kungas in the region dating back 4,500 years.

Clay tablets from 4,500 years ago with a syllabic writing system called cuneiform are already known to be known as ‘kunga’ prestigious equidae with a high market value.

Ancient tablets and seals document that kungas, which cost up to six times the price of a donkey, were purposely bred in Mesopotamia during the early Bronze Age.

While it was thought that one kunga parent was probably a donkey, the identity of the other parent had remained unclear.

Old panel 'hunting for wild ass' (British Museum, London) depicting Asian wild ass being caught

Old panel ‘hunting for wild ass’ (British Museum, London) depicting Asian wild ass being caught

Mesopotamia was a historical region in the Middle East that spanned most of what is now known as Iraq, but also extended into parts of Syria and Turkey

Mesopotamia was a historical region in the Middle East that spanned most of what is now known as Iraq, but also extended into parts of Syria and Turkey

SHOTGUN ORDER

Experts combined shotgun nuclear DNA sequencing with highly sensitive polymerase chain reactions (PCR

Shotgun sequencing involves breaking the genome into a collection of small DNA fragments that are sequenced individually.

A computer program looks for overlaps in the DNA sequences and uses them to put the individual fragments in the correct order to reconstruct the genome.

Source: genome.gov

To learn more, researchers analyzed the genomes of complete skeletons of 25 male hybrid equines from Umm el-Marra to determine whether the equines were kungas and to investigate their taxonomic origins.

Because the DNA had been extremely poorly preserved by the hot Syrian climate, the researchers combined shotgun nuclear DNA sequencing with polymerase chain reactions (PCR), targeting mitochondrial DNA (to examine the mother) and the Y chromosome (to investigate the father). ).

Although degraded, the genome of kungas can be compared to that of other equines – horses, domestic donkeys and wild asses of the hemion family.

The latter includes the remains of an 11,000-year-old equidae from the oldest known temple, Göbekli Tepe (southeast of present-day Turkey), and two of the last remaining Syrian wild ass that disappeared in the early 20th century. are kept in the Natural History Museum of Vienna.

The results confirm a previous hypothesis that the equidae in the cemetery were hybrids and reveal the ancestry of the kungas.

According to the analyses, the equidae of Umm el-Marra are first-generation hybrids resulting from the crossing of a domestic donkey and a male hemione.

Housing D with T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, southeast of present-day Turkey.  This archaeological site contains the world's oldest known temple

Housing D with T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, southeast of present-day Turkey. This archaeological site contains the world’s oldest known temple

Since kungas were sterile and the hemions wild, it was necessary each time to cross a domesticated female with a previously captured hemione.

Rather than domesticating the wild horses that inhabited the region, the Sumerians produced and used hybrids, combining the qualities of the two parents to produce offspring that were stronger and faster than donkeys (and much faster than horses).

Kungas were eventually supplanted by the arrival of the domesticated horse, which was easier to reproduce, when it was imported into the region from the Pontic Steppe.

The researchers say their study, published in scientific progress, may help clarify the scale of hybrid breeding in Mesopotamian societies of the third millennium BC.

Mesopotamia is known as the ‘cradle of civilization’, but what made it so great?

A historic region in the Middle East that spans most of what is now known as Iraq, but also extends into parts of Syria and Turkey.

The term ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from Greek and means ‘between two rivers’.

The two rivers to which the name refers are the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Unlike many other empires (such as the Greeks and Romans), Mesopotamia consisted of different cultures and groups.

Mesopotamia should be better understood as a region that spawned multiple empires and civilizations rather than a single civilization.

Mesopotamia is best known as the “cradle of civilization” because of two developments: the invention of the “city” as we know it today and the invention of writing.

Mesopotamia is an ancient region of the Middle East that makes up most of present-day Iraq and parts of other countries.  They invented cities, the wheel and agriculture and gave women almost equal rights

Mesopotamia is an ancient region of the Middle East that makes up most of present-day Iraq and parts of other countries. They invented cities, the wheel and agriculture and gave women almost equal rights

Thought to be responsible for many early developments, it is also credited with the invention of the wheel.

They also gave the world the first mass domestication of animals, tilled large tracts of land and invented tools and weapons.

In addition to these practical developments, the region saw the birth of wine, beer and the delineation of time in hours, minutes and seconds.

It is thought that the fertile land between the two rivers allowed hunter-gatherers a comfortable existence, leading to the agricultural revolution.

A common thread throughout the area was the equal treatment of women.

Women enjoyed almost equal rights and could own land, file for divorce, own businesses and enter into trade contracts.

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