Genome sequencing has confirmed the origin of mysterious 4,500-year-old animal skeletons from Mesopotamia.

According to a study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists have determined that a 4,500-year-old horse skeleton found in present-day Syria most likely belongs to a domesticated hybrid animal known as the kunga.

Research has determined that people have been breeding kungs for more than 500 years before the first domesticated horses were brought to the area. A cross between domesticated female donkeys and male Syrian wild donkeys, the “Kungi” is already a source of controversy among experts.

“We have a pretty good response to a debate that has been going on for decades. These are the most ancient artificial hybrids that we know,” said Eva-Maria Geigl, one of the authors of the study from the Jacques Monod Institute in France.

Geigl noted that “kungs” are documented as a separate animal on ancient tablets and seals dating back to 2500 BC. The researchers knew that the depicted animals were not horses because there were no domestic horses in the area yet, and the drawings showed donkey-like tails.

According to Geigl, the tablets show that “Kungs” were “very valuable and expensive animals.” They were given to members of the royal family and cost six times as much as a donkey. The skeletons used in the study were found in an ancient burial site in what is now northern Syria, where the elite were buried along with their valuables. In the same cemetery, there were 44 intact animal skeletons.

“It’s really amazing because you usually eat animals and throw them in the trash. You won’t find complete skeletons,” Geigl said.

“This means that people at that time were burying whole animals, so these animals must have been special and precious.”

Geigl said that she and her colleagues approached archaeologists with a request to study Asian wild donkeys, distant relatives of the donkey. Asian donkeys are difficult to tame, very aggressive and very fast.

“We were studying these animals, which are very poorly known,” Geigl said, noting that their scientific name, Equus hemionus, is often confused with the character from Harry Potter. She added that there are “very few left” and only modest wild populations remain in Iran, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Tibet.

According to her, the Syrian subspecies became extinct, and some of the last individuals were placed in zoos at the beginning of the 20th century.

Using measurements, the researchers learned that the ancient bones found at the site in Syria were neither donkeys nor a subspecies of the Asian wild ass, and could be the “kungs” described on ancient tablets. The teeth of the skeletons became the key to unraveling their identity.

They showed no signs of feeding on shrubs, leaves, or fruit, suggesting that the animals were fed. In addition, their cheek teeth indicated that the animals carried a bit in their mouths, similar to modern horses while riding.

The researchers then turned to DNA. By targeting mitochondrial DNA, they confirmed that the mother of the skeletons was a donkey. Y-chromosome DNA suggested that the father was related to Asian wild asses, but limited knowledge of Asian wild asses and the poor quality of preservation of the Syrian skeletons made it difficult to conclude whether the animals were directly descended from the mating of a domesticated donkey. and a subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass.

“The bones were like chalk, and the DNA was poorly preserved because it was too hot there,” Geigl said.

During the genome revolution in the 2010s, they worked diligently to sequence the genomes of ancient skeletons from Syria and the last specimens of Syrian wild donkeys that died in captivity in the early 1900s and were then preserved at the Natural History Museum, Geigl says. Vein. Thus, the researchers found that the skeletons really belong to the Syrian wild donkey.

“That means it was a first-generation hybrid,” Geigl said, noting that “Kungs” are the earliest known example of hybrid animals bred by humans.

According to her, the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia had to capture Syrian wild donkeys in the desert every time they wanted to make a “kunga” – ancient tablets indicate that male “kunga” were sterile, which is not unusual for hybrids in the family horses.

The effort and strategy required to capture the fast and aggressive Syrian wild donkeys shows why kungs were such a valuable commodity at the time.