DNA sequencing solves mystery of earliest hybrid animal's identity

Detail of the "War panel" of the "Standard of Ur," exhibited in the British Museum, London, which depicts Kungas pulling wagons. Thierry Grange/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris

(CNN)Bronze Age bioengineers created the earliest hybrid animal -- a majestic horselike creature known as a kunga that had a donkey mom, a Syrian wild ass for a father and lived 4,500 years ago, according to new research based on the sequencing of DNA from the animal's skeleton.

Descriptions and imagery in Mesopotamian art and texts portray a powerful animal that pulled war wagons into battle and royal vehicles in parades. Its true identity, however, had long puzzled and divided archaeologists. Domesticated horses didn't arrive in the region, sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent, until 4,000 years ago.
Jill Weber, an author of the study, excavating equid burials at Umm el-Marra, Syria. © Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University.
Intact skeletons of the creatures were buried alongside high-status people -- the upper crust of Bronze Age society -- at the burial complex of Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, suggesting the animals occupied a very special position. Analysis of kunga teeth showed that they wore bits in their mouths and were well fed.
    However, the bones of horses, donkeys, asses, mules and other equids are very similar and difficult to tell apart, making it impossible to definitively ID the animal merely by examining the skeletons.
      Now, analysis of DNA extracted from the bones buried at Umm el-Marra has revealed the animal was a cross between a donkey, which was domesticated at the time, and the now-extinct Syrian wild ass, sometimes called hemippe or an onager.
      This makes it the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding with parents from two different species, according to the research published in the journal Science Advances Friday. It was likely intentionally created, trained and then exchanged among the elites of the day.
      "Since hybrids are usually sterile, it means there was a remarkable level of energy devoted to constantly capturing and raising wild onagers, breeding them with domestic donkeys and then training these teams of prestigious kungas (which would only last for one generation)," said Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via email. He wasn't involved with the research.
        "It really shows the innovative and experimental nature of ancient people which I think some people only associate with the modern world and also their willingness to invest a lot of resources in the artificial creation of an expensive animal used only by and for elites."
        A panel showing two individuals hunting wild asses that dates to between  645-635 BCE (British Museum, London). © Eva-Maria Geigl / IJM / CNRS-Université de Paris