DNA sequencing solves mystery of earliest hybrid animal’s identity

Descriptions and images in Mesopotamian art and texts depict a powerful animal that attracted war chariots to battle and royal chariots to marches. However, its true identity has long puzzled archaeologists. Domesticated horses did not reach the area, sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent, until 4,000 years ago.

The intact skeletons of the creatures were buried alongside notable figures – the upper class of Bronze Age society – in the burial complex at Umm Murra in northern Syria, suggesting that the animals occupied a very special place. Analysis of the conga teeth showed that they wore small parts in their mouths and were well fed.

However, the bones of horses, donkeys, donkeys, mules, and other equids are so similar and difficult to distinguish between them, making it impossible to definitively identify the animal simply by examining the skeletons.

Now, analysis of DNA extracted from bones buried at Umm Mura has revealed that the animal was a cross between a domesticated donkey at the time, and the now-extinct Syrian wild ass, sometimes called Hemippe or onager.

This makes it the first evidence of hybrid animals breeding with parents of two different species, according to research published in Science Advances Friday. It was likely that he was deliberately created and trained and then exchanged among today’s elites.

“Because hybrids are usually sterile, this means that there has been an impressive level of energy devoted to constantly capturing and raising wild animals, raising them with local donkeys and then training these teams of prestigious congas (which will only last a generation),” Benjamin Arbuckle, archaeologist Anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via email. He did not participate in the research.

“It really shows the innovative and experimental nature of the elderly which I think some people only associate with the modern world and also their willingness to invest a lot of resources in artificially creating an expensive animal that is used only by and for the elites.”

war animal

Before the horse’s arrival, finding an animal willing to fight in battle was a challenge, said Eva-Maria Gijel, head of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Paris and author of the study.

She said that while cattle and donkeys could pull carts, they would not run toward the opponent.

“They were not used to wage war, and there were no local horses at that time. The Sumerians, who wanted to wage war because they were really very powerful city-states, had to find another solution.”

Conga skeletons buried in Umm Marra, Syria.

She thinks the first conga arose naturally – a Syrian wild donkey mating with a female donkey.

“They must have seen that the animal was more robust and more trainable. They must have noticed the result of this natural crossing and then said OK, we’ll do it. And for the first time in human history, we’re going to bio-engineer an animal.”

However, it wasn’t easy. She said the Syrian wild donkey was thought to be aggressive and move very fast.

An earlier study of mitochondrial DNA, revealing the female line, Jijel said, found that the conga were a hybrid. Only by analyzing the nuclear DNA were scientists able to determine the animal’s paternity.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers sequenced and compared the genomes of a 4,500-year-old Konga buried at Umm Murra in Syria, an 11,000-year-old Syrian wild ass found at Göbekli Tepe (the oldest known man-made place of worship in modern Turkey). and two of the last surviving Syrian wild asses, which became extinct in the early 20th century.

Most of the texts referring to the conga date to the mid-2000 BC, Arbinkel said, and it is unlikely that they were born before 3,000 BC – when donkeys appeared in the archaeological record. By 2000 B.C., he said, they had been replaced by horses and mules as draft animals — a cross between a male donkey and a female horse.

The moment when domesticated horses changed the course of human history has now been revealed

“This work stabilizes the idea that the hybrids were in fact made by the ancient Mesopotamians, which is very remarkable,” Arbuckle said.

“But we still don’t know how widespread this animal is and it doesn’t address additional questions regarding other equine hybrids created in the Bronze Age. So there are a lot of questions.”


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