DNA sequencing solves mystery of earliest hybrid animals

Descriptions and imagery in Mesopotamian art and texts depict a mighty beast that pulled war wagons into battle and royal vehicles into parades. However, its true identity had long confused and divided archaeologists. Domesticated horses, sometimes called the Fertile Crescent, were not introduced to the region until 4,000 years ago.

Intact skeletons of the creatures were buried in the burial complex of Umm al-Mara in northern Syria with high-status people – the upper layer of Bronze Age society, suggesting that the animals occupied a very special position. Was. Analysis of Kunga teeth showed that they wore bits in their mouths and were well fed.

However, the bones of horses, donkeys, donkeys, mules and other equines are very similar and difficult to tell apart, making it impossible to definitively identify the animal by examining the skeletons alone.

Now, analysis of DNA extracted from bones buried at Umm al-Mara has shown that the animal was a cross between a donkey, which was domesticated at the time, and the now-extinct Syrian wild ass, sometimes known as the Called Hemipp or a Vangar.

This forms the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding with parents from two different species, according to research published Friday in the journal Science Advances. It was probably intentionally created, trained and then exchanged among the elite of the day.

“Since hybrids are usually sterile, this meant that there was a remarkable level of energy devoted to continually capturing and raising wild foragers, breeding them with domestic donkeys, and then training these teams of prestigious kungs (which only will last a generation),” said Benjamin Arbuckle, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via email. He was not involved in the research.

“It really reflects the innovative and experimental nature of ancient people, which I think some people only associate with the modern world and their willingness to invest a lot of resources in the artificial creation of an expensive animal only by the elite. and is used for them.”

A panel depicting two men hunting wild donkeys dates to between 645-635 BC (British Museum, London).  © Eva-Maria Geigl / IJM / CNRS-Université de Paris

war animal

Before the horse arrived, finding an animal ready to charge in battle was a challenge, said study author Eva-Maria Geigel, head of research at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) at the Université de Paris.

While cattle and donkeys could pull the wagon, they would not run towards an adversary, she said.

“They weren’t used to war, and there were no domestic horses at the time. The Sumerians, who wanted to fight because they were a very powerful city-state indeed, had to find another solution.”

Kunga skeletons buried in Umm al-Mara, Syria.

She thinks that the first kunga came into existence naturally – a Syrian wild ass with a female donkey.

“They would have seen that the animal was stronger and more trainable. They would have seen the result of this natural crossing and then they said well, we will do that. For the first time in human history, we would bioengineer an animal.”

However, it was not easy. He said that the Syrian wild donkey was considered aggressive and moved very quickly.

Geigel said an earlier study of mitochondrial DNA, in which the female line was traced, had found that Kunga was a hybrid. It was only by analysis of nuclear DNA that scientists were able to pinpoint the paternity of the animal.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers compared and compared the genome of a 4,500-year-old kunga buried at Umm al-Mara in Syria, an 11,000-year-old Syrian wild ass found in Gobekli Tepe (the earliest known man-made site) of modern of worship in Turkey) and two of the last surviving Syrian wild donkeys, which became extinct in the early 20th century.

Urbankal said that most texts referring to the kung’s date from the middle of 2,000 BCE, and it was unlikely that they originated before 3,000 BCE – when donkeys appear in the archaeological record. By 2,000 BCE, he said, they had been replaced by horses and mules as pulling animals—a cross between a male donkey and a female horse.

The moment domesticated horses changed the course of human history is now revealed

“This work settles the idea that hybrids were actually created by ancient Mesopotamians, which is great,” Arbuckle said.

“But we still don’t know how widespread this animal was and it doesn’t even address additional questions related to other types of hybrid equids created in the Bronze Age. So there are many more questions.”

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