Prestigious ass hydrids used in warfare hundreds of years before horses in Fertile Crescent

Share
Detail of the "war panel" of the Standard of Ur, exhibited in the British Museum, London. © Thierry Grange/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris. Bottom, left: Equid burial from Umm el-Marra, Syria. © Glenn Schwartz/John Hopkins University. Bottom, right: Enclosure D with T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. © German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.
Detail of the “war panel” of the Standard of Ur, exhibited in the British Museum, London. © Thierry Grange/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris. Bottom, left: Equid burial from Umm el-Marra, Syria. © Glenn Schwartz/John Hopkins University. Bottom, right: Enclosure D with T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. © German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.

The equids used for travel and warfare by elite residents of Mesopotamia 4500 years ago were crosses between domestic donkeys and wild asses, DNA testing reveals.

This makes them the oldest known example of animal hybrids, which were produced by Syro-Mesopotamian societies 500 years before the rise of domestic horses in the region.

The 4500-year-old artwork and texts from Mesopotamia reveal the use of equids for travel and warfare by the ruling classes. However, until now, the nature of these animals remained mysterious.

A scientific team from the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris used ancient DNA to show that these animals were the result of an unusual cross. Their findings are reported today in the journal Science Advances.

Equids have played a key role in the evolution of warfare throughout history.

Although domesticated horses did not appear in the Fertile Crescent – a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt – until about 4000 years ago, the Sumerians had already been using equid-drawn four-wheeled war wagons on the battlefield for centuries, as evidenced by the famous Standard of Ur, a 4500-year-old Sumerian mosaic.

Cuneiform clay tablets from this period also mention prestigious equids with a high market value called kunga. However, the precise nature of this animal has been the subject of controversy for decades.

The Nineveh panel: Hunting wild asses (645-635 BCE), held at the British Museum in London. © Eva-Maria Geigl/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris
The Nineveh panel: Hunting Wild Asses (645-635 BCE), held at the British Museum in London. © Eva-Maria Geigl/IJM/CNRS-Université de Paris

A team of palaeogeneticists from the institute addressed the question by studying equid genomes from the 4500-year-old princely burial complex of Umm el-Marra in northern Syria.

On the basis of body shape and archaeological criteria, these animals, buried in separate installations, have been proposed to be the prestigious kungas by an archaeozoologist from the United States.

Although degraded, the genome of these animals could be compared to those of other equids: Horses, domestic donkeys and wild asses of the hemione family, specially sequenced for this study. The latter includes the remains of an 11,000-year-old equid from the oldest known temple, Göbekli Tepe, in the south east of present-day Turkey, and the last representatives of Syrian wild asses that disappeared in the early 20th century.

According to the analyses, the equids of Umm el-Marra are first-generation hybrids resulting from the cross of a domestic donkey and a male hemione. As kungas were sterile and the hemiones were wild, it was necessary each time to cross a domestic female with a previously captured hemione. Such a capture is represented on an Assyrian bas-relief artwork from Nineveh.

Rather than domesticating the wild horses that populated the region, the Sumerians produced and used hybrids, combining the qualities of the two parents to produce offspring that were stronger and faster than donkeys (and much faster than horses) but more controllable than hemiones.

These kungas were eventually supplanted by the arrival of the domestic horse, which was easier to reproduce, when it was imported to the region from the Pontic Steppe.

Previous findings from the same research group 

 

Horsetalk.co.nz

Latest research and information from the horse world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *