Hybrid ‘super donkeys’ were bred for battle thousands of years before horses, study finds

Paris, France – Before there were war horses, a new study reveals that ancient humans bred hybrid donkeys specifically for battle thousands of years ago.

The beasts, called “kungas”, were stronger and faster than normal donkeys. They were also much faster than horses, according to French scientists, who believe they were the first animal hybrids. Texts and engravings from ancient Mesopotamia, dating back 4,500 years, show that the elite used beasts of burden for travel and warfare.

However, the nature of these animals has remained mysterious until now. French researchers have used ancient DNA to show that the animals were the result of crossing domestic donkeys with wild donkeys.

The researchers add that this makes them the oldest known example of animal hybrids, produced by Syro-Mesopotamian societies 500 years before domestic horses arrived in the region.

“Equidae have played a key role in the evolution of warfare throughout history,” writes the team from the Jacques Monod Institute (CNRS) in a press release.

“Although domesticated horses only appeared in the Fertile Crescent around 4,000 years ago, the Sumerians had already been using four-wheeled equine-drawn war chariots on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous “Standard of Ur” – a 4,500-year-old Sumerian mosaic.

The study authors say that cuneiform clay tablets from this era mention “prestigious” and extremely valuable equines called “kungas”. Until now, scientists have debated what kind of animals the kungas were.

Panel from Nineveh: “Wild donkey hunt” (645-635 BCE) (British Museum, London). (© Eva-Maria Geigl / IJM / CNRS-University of Paris)

The ‘super donkeys’ were given special burials

Paleogeneticists addressed this question by studying the genomes of equines from the 4,500-year-old princely burial complex of Umm el-Marra in present-day northern Syria. An American archaeozoologist first proposed that these animals, buried in separate facilities, were the kungas.

“Although degraded, the genome of these animals could be compared to those of other equids: horses, domestic donkeys and wild donkeys of the family of hemiones, specially sequenced for this study”, report the authors of the study.

The remains include an 11,000-year-old equid from the oldest known temple, Göbekli Tepe, in present-day southeast Turkey, and the last specimens of Syrian wild asses – which disappeared in the early 20th century.

“According to the analyses, the equines of Umm el-Marra are first generation hybrids resulting from the crossing of a domestic donkey and a male hemione”, explain the researchers.

Since kungas were sterile and hemiones were wild, the team says ancient humans crossed a domesticated female with a previously captured hemione each time to produce a hybrid.

Above: Detail of the “War panel” from the “Standard of Ur”, exhibited at the British Museum in London. (© Thierry Grange / IJM / CNRS-University of Paris.)
Bottom left: Equine burial in Umm el-Marra, Syria. (© Glenn Schwartz/Johns Hopkins University.)
Bottom right: Enclosure D with T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. (© German Archaeological Institute, Berlin (Germany))

Easy-to-raise horses marked the end of the “kungas”

Instead of domesticating wild horses in the region, it seems that the Sumerians produced and used hybrids, combining the qualities of the two distinct parent donkeys to create offspring stronger and faster than the donkeys, but more controllable than the hemiones. .

“These kungas were eventually supplanted by the arrival of the more easily bred domestic horse when it was brought to the region from the Pontic steppe,” the team concludes.

The results are published in the journal Scientists progress.

Stephen Beech, editor of the South West News Service, contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.