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Look: A mysterious Bronze Age animal reveals an evolutionary first

Meet the kunga.

Originally Published: 

We can learn a lot about the first urban societies by the intricate artifacts they left behind. Like those from the Mesopotamian Bronze Age.

The Standard of Ur, which was crafted by ancient Sumerians, shows scenes of war and peace.

Wagons and weapons abound, with animals towing people along.

Take a closer at those animals.

They kind of look like donkeys, but also horses. They’re actually neither, though they do come from the same genus, equus.

Researchers have been puzzling over what these animals were for decades.

Called kungas, the long-extinct creatures were an important part of Bronze Age society in Mesopotamia. But their genetic makeup has been a mystery.

© German Archaeological Institute, Berlin (Germany)


A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances clears up the kungas’ genetic roots — revealing they were actually a hybrid species.

Researchers analyzed the genomes of 25 male kungas, dating back 4,500 years.

Wikimedia Commons

The heat-baked remains come from present-day Syria. The researchers had to use several different types of genetic tests to get accurate results.

© Glenn Schwartz / John Hopkins University

Valentino Imperatore / 500px/500px/Getty Images

They were able to link the kunga to parents from two different species.

On the maternal side was the donkey, Equus africanus asinus.

ilbusca/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

On the paternal side was the Syrian wild ass, Equus hemionus hemippus, sometimes called a hemippe.

This species went extinct in the wild in 1927 — the same year that the last captive individual died at a zoo in Vienna, Austria.

(Conrad) Keller (1848-1930) via Wikimedia Commons

The new understanding of the kunga’s genetic makeup means these creatures are the earliest-known example of humans intentionally crossbreeding species.


In Bronze Age society, kungas were highly valued, costing up to six times as much as an ordinary donkey — and were likely bred for battle.


Only society’s wealthiest members could afford these animals, a fact that’s evidenced by the presence of kunga remains in the most intricate tombs from the Bronze Age.

Questions remain about how widespread crossbreeding and domestication were throughout Mesopotamia at the time.

But it’s clear that owning a kunga was a status symbol.

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