A super-powerful animal known as the ‘kunga’ was the first-known human-engineered hybrid of two animal species, reports a new study published in Science Advances . The researchers conducted a genome-sequencing study on equine skeletons found at a 4,500-year-old burial site at Umm el-Marra in northern Syria. The results of their study indicate the skeletons belonged to kungas, a cross between female donkeys and male Syrian wild asses or hemippes.

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

“Kungas were F1 hybrids between female domestic donkeys and male hemippes [Syrian wild ass], thus documenting the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding. Large-sized male kungas were used to pull the vehicles of ‘nobility and gods’, and their size and speed made them more desirable than asses for the towing of four-wheeled war wagons,” the research team is cited by The Daily Mail as saying.

Myth of the Minotaur: The Making of a Monster
The Controversial Lapedo Child – A Neanderthal / Human Hybrid?
Hybrid animals known as ‘kungas’ found at Umm el-Marra site, Syria. (Glenn Schwartz/John Hopkins University)

Hybrid animals known as ‘kungas’ found at Umm el-Marra site, Syria. (Glenn Schwartz/ John Hopkins University )

Kungas Predated Domestication of Horses in the Region
Mesopotamia is the ancient region in the Middle East that corresponds to modern-day Iraq, parts of Syria and Turkey. While there is archaeological evidence to suggest that horses were domesticated in the Western Steppe as much as 6000 years ago, they didn’t arrive in the Mesopotamia region until much later, an earlier study by the same research group published in 2020 had reported.

Domesticated horses were imported from the Pontic Steppe to Mesopotamia only around 4000 years ago, just centuries after they were first domesticated. But 44 equine skeletons were excavated in the early 2000s from a royal burial complex dating back to 2600 BC at Umm el-Marra in northern Syria. They appeared to belong to the kunga, an animal depicted in ancient art and its sales recorded in syllabic cuneiform writing on clay tablets predating the arrival of domestic horses in the region by centuries, reports Science News .

Archaeologists have long suspected that these animals were the result of some kind of crossbreeding. But proof was lacking. Now the new study has provided proof that they were hybrid animals, after more than a decade of research.

One of the study’s authors, Jill Weber, excavating equid burials (installation A) at Umm el-Marra, Syria. (© Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University)

Kungas Were an Example of “Early Bioengineering”
Eva-Maria Geigl, one of the palaeogeneticists who did the study, said, according to the New York Times , that the breeding of kungas was really an example of “early bioengineering” that developed into a kind of ancient biotech industry.

Kungas, too, like mules, a much later cross between donkeys and horses, were sterile. Each new kunga was therefore a one-off and didn’t establish a lineage. For the mating, the stallions had to be captured and kept in captivity even though they were very combative. Archaeological finds indicate that there was a kunga-breeding center in Nagar (now Tell Brak, Syria) that shipped young kungas to other cities.

They were costly animals, used in war and military ceremonies, and were also a status symbol. “They were highly valued, very expensive,” Geigl is quoted by Science News as saying. Meanwhile, co-author E. Andrew Bennett, now at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, equates kungas to “bioengineered war machines”. Kungas continued to be a status symbol in the region for at least 500 years until horses appeared 4000 years back to take their place in battle.

Sumerian chariots drawn by kungas, illustrated on the Standard of Ur. ( CC0)

What Was It That these hybrid animals Brought to the Table?
Although there were wild horses populating the region, the Syrians didn’t seem to have considered domesticating them and preferred these hybrid animals, who combined the qualities of two parents. Calling the research “enormously significant”, Fiona Marshall who is an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis and who has studied the prehistory of the domestication of donkeys, said that it clearly showed what the ancient Syrians were after.

While donkeys were tamer than their ancestors, the African wild ass, the Syrians also wanted the qualities of a wild animal, she said according to the New York Times . They were looking for the strength, speed and perhaps size of wild asses and so cross-bred the donkey with the local wild ass. The resulting offspring were stronger and faster than donkeys (and much faster than horses).

However, although the new research has finally decoded how the kungas were engineered, it is impossible to put the knowledge into practice. This is because although donkeys still abound, Syrian wild asses became extinct in the 1920s.