Kungas, the first hybrid animals raised by humans
A new genome sequencing study has discovered the earliest known evidence of hybrid animal breeding. The details of the discovery are detailed in an article under the title The genetic identity of the earliest human-made hybrid animals, the kungas of Syro-Mesopotamia is published this week in the magazine Science Advances.
It concludes that the so-called Kungas would be descended from the cross between a female domestic donkey and a male donkey. hemipo –Equus hemionus hemippus- a now-extinct subspecies of Syrian wild ass already domesticated by the Sumerians before horses.
However, the work also confirms the identity of the mysterious skeletons belonging to several 4,500-year-old equids found in a cemetery intended for Mesopotamian elites in northern present-day Syria, which probably belonged to these strange kungas.
Before the introduction of domestic horses to Mesopotamia at the end of the third millennium BC, contemporary cuneiform tablets already documented the intentional breeding of highly valued equids called kungas for use in diplomacy, ceremonies, or warfare itself. According to these tables, a Kunga could be worth up to 6 times the price of a normal donkey during the Old Bronze Age.
A Kunga could be worth up to 6 times the price of a normal donkey during the Old Bronze Age.
There have been many theories about the origin of these strange equids. Some scientists have come to affirm that it was the cross between a donkey and some other species of equid unknown or to be determined. However, it has not been until now that, thanks to the work carried out by E. Andrew Bennett and his colleagues from the Jacques Monod Institute – University of Paris attached to the CNRS, and from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who have been able to accurately determine the genetic origin of the species.
To find out if they were before kungas or try to find out the taxonomic origin of the creatures, the researchers analyzed the genomes of up to 25 complete skeletons belonging to male specimens of different hybrid equids. These had previously been identified in an old cemetery in Tell Umm el-Marrain present-day Syria.
Because the DNA was extremely poorly preserved due to the hot Syrian climate, to identify the progenitors the researchers had to combine nuclear DNA sequencing with polymerase chain reactions (PCR) targeting mitochondrial DNA to investigate the females, and to the Y chromosome to investigate the males.
Next, Bennett and his team compared their findings with the genomes of several equids from an early Neolithic Turkish site and with samples from 2 of the last known Syrian wild asses now housed at the Syrian History Museum. Native of Vienna.
“We sequenced the genomes of one of these equids approximately 4,500 years old, together with that of a hemipus approximately 11,000 years old. Gobekli Tepe and two of the last known hemipos,” says Bennet, “we concluded that the kungas were first-generation hybrids between female domestic donkeys and male hemipos, thus documenting the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding”, Add.
By confirming the earlier hypothesis that the equids at the burial site were hybrids and uncovering the ancestry of the Kungas, the researchers say the study may help understand the importance of hybrid reproduction in Mesopotamian societies in the third millennium BC. C..
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