The earliest evidence of a human-bred animal hybrid has been discovered in ancient Mesopotamia. Approximately 4,500 years ago, Mesopotamians bred domesticated donkeys and wild asses – these hybrids were called kungas – so that they could pull their war wagons. Interestingly, this occurred about 500 years prior to horses being bred for the exact same purpose. (Photo above is not a kunga.)
It is believed that the first kungas were bred by the Sumerians before 2500 BC. After the decline of the Sumerians, their successors continued to breed and sell these hybrids for several more centuries. In fact, a carved stone panel that originally came from the Assyrian capital Nineveh (it has since been brought to the British Museum) depicted two men walking away with a wild ass that they had presumably just caught. The animals were also mentioned in numerous ancient Mesopotamian texts written on clay tablets.
The bones of these animal hybrids were unearthed in a burial mound at Tell Umm el-Marra in the northern part of Syria and the DNA was analyzed by experts. Kungas were fast, strong, and sterile creatures that came from the breeding of a female domestic donkey and a male Syrian wild ass.
In an interview with Live Science, Eva-Maria Geigl, who is a genomicist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, described the animals in further detail, “From the skeletons, we knew they were equids [horse-like animals], but they did not fit the measurements of donkeys and they did not fit the measurements of Syrian wild asses.” “So they were somehow different, but it was not clear what the difference was.” The researchers believed that the bones did belong to kungas as their teeth contained evidence of them biting into their harnesses, as well as indications that they were purposely fed instead of just grazing on their own.
Geigl went on to say, “They really bio-engineered these hybrids.” “There were the earliest hybrids ever, as far as we know, and they had to do that each time for each kunga that was produced — so this explains why they were so valuable.”
Another noteworthy fact was that kungas could run faster than horses, which seems to suggest that they would have continued being used to pull the war wagons even after domesticated horses began being bred. (Pictures of the kunga bones can be viewed here.)
The study was published in the journal Science Advances where it can be read in full.