Before horses, ass hybrids were bred for warfare – BIOENGINEER.ORG

4,500-year-old iconography and texts from Mesopotamia show that the elite used ungulates for travel and warfare; however, the nature of these animals remained mysterious. IN Advances in science (January 14, 2022) A team from the Jacques Monod Institute (CNRS / Université de Paris) used ancient DNA to show that these animals were the result of a cross between domestic donkeys and wild donkeys. This makes them the oldest known specimen of animal hybrids, produced by poor Mesopotamian societies 500 years before the arrival of domestic horses in the region.

Credit: © Thierry Grange / IJM / CNRS-University of Paris.

4,500-year-old iconography and texts from Mesopotamia show that the elite used ungulates for travel and warfare; however, the nature of these animals remained mysterious. IN Advances in science (January 14, 2022) A team from the Jacques Monod Institute (CNRS / Université de Paris) used ancient DNA to show that these animals were the result of a cross between domestic donkeys and wild donkeys. This makes them the oldest known specimen of animal hybrids, produced by poor Mesopotamian societies 500 years before the arrival of domestic horses in the region.

Hooves have played a key role in the evolution of warfare throughout history. Although domesticated horses did not appear in the Fertile Crescent until about 4,000 years ago1, The Sumerians have used four-wheeled chariots on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous “Standard of Ur”, a 4,500-year-old Sumerian mosaic (see photo). Wedge-shaped clay tablets from that period also mention prestigious ungulates of high market value called “kung”; however, the exact nature of this animal has been the subject of controversy for decades.

A team of paleogeneticists from the Jacques Monod Institute (CNRS / Université de Paris) has been working on this issue by studying the genomes of ungulates from the 4,500-year-old princely tomb complex of Umm el-Marra (northern Syria). Based on morphological and archaeological criteria, these animals, buried in separate installations, were proposed by the archaeozoologist from the United States to the prestigious “kungas”.

Although degraded, the genome of these animals could be compared to the genome of other ungulates: horses, domestic donkeys, and wild donkeys from the hemione family, specifically sequenced for this study. The latter includes the remains of 11,000-year-old ungulates from the oldest known temple, Göbekli Tepe (southeast of present-day Turkey), and the last representatives of Syrian wild donkeys to disappear in the early 20th century. According to analyzes, Umm el-Marr ungulates are first-generation hybrids created by crossing a domestic donkey and a male hemion. As the kungs were sterile and the chemons were wild, it was necessary to cross a domestic female with a pre-caught chemion each time (the catch is presented in an Assyrian bas-relief from Nineveh).

Instead of domesticating the wild horses that inhabited the region, the Sumerians produced and used hybrids, combining the qualities of two parents to produce offspring that were stronger and faster than donkeys (and much faster than horses) but controllable by chemists. These kungs were eventually suppressed by the arrival of the domestic horse, which was easier to breed when it was imported into the area from the Pontic steppe.

Notes


1 This is a previous finding of the same research group: www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abb0030


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