Mesopotamians used hybrid donkeys and wild asses to pull their chariots of war 4,500 years ago – at least 500 years before horses were bred for this purpose, a new study reveals.
The analysis of the old DNA from animal bones discovered in northern Syria resolves a long-standing question about what kind of animals were the “kungas” described in ancient sources as pulling chariots of war.
“From the skeletons, we knew they were equines [horse-like animals], but they did not correspond to the measurements of donkeys and they did not match the measurements of Syrian wild asses,” said study co-author Eva-Maria Geigl, a genomics scientist at the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris. “So they were kind of different, but the difference wasn’t clear. “
The new study shows, however, that the kungas were strong, fast and yet sterile hybrids of a female domestic donkey and a male Syrian wild ass, or hemione – a species of equid native to the region.
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Ancient records mentioned kungas as highly prized and expensive beasts, which could be explained by the rather difficult process of breeding them, Geigl said.
Because each kunga was sterile, like many hybrid animals such as mules, they had to be produced by mating a female domestic donkey with a male wild ass, which had to be captured, she said.
It was a particularly difficult task because wild donkeys could run faster than donkeys and even kungas, and were impossible to tame, she said.
“They really bioengineered these hybrids,” Geigl told Live Science. “There were the first hybrids ever, as far as we know, and they had to do it every time for every kunga produced – so that explains why they were so valuable.”
donkeys of war
The kungas are mentioned in several ancient cuneiform texts on clay tablets from Mesopotamia, and they are depicted drawing four-wheeled war chariots on the famous “Standard of Ur”, a Sumerian mosaic from around 4,500 years ago which is now on display in the British Museum in London.
Archaeologists had suspected it was some kind of hybrid donkey, but they didn’t know what equine it was hybridized with, Geigl said.
Some experts believed Syrian wild asses were far too small – smaller than donkeys – to be bred to produce kungas, she said.
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The species is now extinct, and the last Syrian wild ass — not much more than a meter (3 feet) tall — died in 1927 at the world’s oldest zoo, the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria; its vestiges are preserved today in the museum of natural history of this city.
In the new study, researchers compared the genome of the bones of Vienna’s last Syrian wild ass with the genome of the 11,000-year-old bones of a wild ass unearthed at the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site in what is now the South East. Turkey.
This comparison showed that the two animals belonged to the same species, but the ancient wild ass was much larger, Geigl said. This suggests that the Syrian wild ass species has become much smaller in recent times than it was in ancient times, likely due to environmental pressures such as hunting, she said.
Historians believe that the Sumerians were the first to breed kungas before 2500 BC – at least 500 years before the first domestic horses were introduced from the steppe north of the Caucasus Mountains, according to a 2020 study in the journal Scientists progress by several of the same researchers.
Ancient records show the successor states of the Sumerians – such as the Assyrians – continued to breed and sell kungas for centuries – and a carved stone panel from the Assyrian capital Nineveh, now in the British Museum, shows two men leading a wild donkey they had captured.
The kunga bones for the last study came from a princely funerary complex in Tell Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, which dates to the Early Bronze Age between 3000 BC and 2000 BC; the site is thought to be the ruins of the ancient city of Tuba mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions.
Study co-author Jill Weber, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, excavated the bones about 10 years ago. Weber had proposed that the animals at Tell Umm el-Marra were kungas because their teeth had bit harness marks and wear marks that showed they had been deliberately fed, rather than left to graze like ordinary donkeys. , she said.
Kungas could run faster than horses, so the practice of using them to pull war chariots probably continued after the introduction of domestic horses to Mesopotamia, she said.
But eventually the last kungas died and no more were bred from donkeys and wild donkeys, likely because domestic horses were easier to raise, Geigl said.
The new study was published Friday, January 14 in the journal Scientists progress.
Originally posted on Live Science.