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-year-old hybrid

A 4500-year-old burial contains a hybrid animal. This is the first time humans have bred a hybrid animal

Early Bronze Age people in Syria crossed donkeys with wild asses to make prized horse-like hybrids, demonstrating advanced understanding of animal breeding Life 14 January 2022 By Alice Klein Equid skeletons from Tell Umm el-Marra, SyriaGlenn Schwartz/John Hopkins University The bones of horse-like creatures unearthed in a 4500-year-old royal tomb in Syria are the earliest…

Early Bronze Age people from Syria crossed donkeys and wild asses to create prized hybrids that look like horses. This is a demonstration of advanced knowledge in animal breeding



Life



14 January 2022

By Alice Klein

Equid burial

Equid skeletons from Tell Umm el-Marra, Syria

Glenn Schwartz/John Hopkins University

The bones of horse-like creatures unearthed in a 4500-year-old royal tomb in Syria are the earliest known hybrid animals bred by people, with DNA sequencing showing them to be crosses of donkeys and Syrian wild asses.

The discovery suggests that early civilisation in what is now Syria was “really advanced technologically”, says Eva-Maria Geigl at the University of Paris in France.

In 2006, the complete skeletons of 25 animals were found in a 4500-year-old royal burial complex called Tell Umm el-Marra in northern Syria. Archaeologists were perplexed because they looked like horses but had different proportions, and horses weren’t thought to have been introduced to the area until 500 years later.

To determine the species of the animals, Geigl and colleagues sequenced DNA from bones of the horses and compared it to the genomes from other horse-like species in the area.

They discovered that the animals were hybrids between the Syrian wild ass and domestic donkey. It was possible to sequence DNA from the Syrian wild ass using 19th-century teeth and hair specimens housed in an Austrian zoo and a 11,000-year-old bone dug up in Turkey.

The researchers believe that the hybrid animals could be “kungas”, mysterious horses-like creatures with donkey tails. These are common in royal seals dating back to early Bronze Age Syria or Mesopotamia.

According to clay tablets dating back to the 16th century, kungas were prized and valued six times more than donkeys. They were used as dowries in royal marriages, and to pull royal vehicles and warwags.

Geigl thinks that people living in the area may have crossed donkeys with wild Syrian asses to produce desirable offspring.

Donkeys are easy-going but not fast enough to fight on the battlefields. However, Syrian wild asses were too fast and too aggressive to be controlled, so Geigl suggests that the kunga mix may have helped balance the two.

“But breeding them wouldn’t have been easy because special strategies would have been needed to capture the Syrian wild asses – which were very fast – and bring them to the female donkeys

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