Geographical Society of Philadelphia

Yes, I found the Kunga! The genetic identity of the earliest human-made hybrid animals, the kungas of Syro-Mesopotamia.

Congratulations to our board president, Dr. Jill Weber, a world-renowned archeologist who has discovered the existence of Kunga, the first human-engineered hybrid breed.

I have excavated, analyzed, and interpreted many interesting things over the course of my archaeology career. But, my favorite find easily has been the Kunga. The Kunga is the name of an animal that was written about in texts in Syro-Mesopotamia (specifically from Iraq and Syria) from roughly 2600 BC to 2100 BC. This animal was a type of equid (e.g. the same family as horses, zebras, asses), most likely a sterile hybrid. The smaller males and females were used for plowing, but the larger males circulated among the elite and were used to pull chariots for kings and gods. They cost up to 10x more than a donkey, and had special grasses gathered for their fodder! A special animal, indeed! For decades, the remains of this animal were never definitively identified and its identity remained speculative. But I found them and was able to make an identification.
I was part of an excavation in northern Syria at a small place called Umm el-Marra, directed by my friend and colleague Glenn Schwartz of the Johns Hopkins University, and by Hans Curvers. Starting in 2002, we began excavating an elite burial complex that contained tombs with human adults and infants, gold and silver, pots, and animal bones. They also were surrounded by separate tombs containing equid skeletons. In all, we recovered the skeletons of more than 30 individual equids. It was pretty clear from the start that these finds were special. I have worked at many sites in which equids featured among the animal bones and they didn’t look like any donkey or hemione or horse bones I’d ever seen.
With more than 30 nearly-complete skeletons, though, I was able to show with statistical significance that the size and shape of the animals’ bones belonged to a single population of animals that differed from populations of donkey, hemione, wild ass, horse, and donkey x horse hybrids. But, those same traits were not different from potential donkey x hemione hybrids.  Traits and features of the bones also indicated that the animals were neither ass nor hemione nor horse, but instead showed a blend of ass and hemione traits. Their teeth, too, were consistent with hybridity; instances of malocclusion and mixed traits were abnormally high.
In addition, the demography of the equid population was unique. The animals were all male, large-sized, and showed muscle development and bone arthrosis typical of use in pulling a vehicle, they had not been used for loading (e.g. not as a pack animal), and had evidence for being confined (so-called “crib-biting”) and being extensively foddered. These demographic traits, together with their exceptional burial treatment within the elite complex, made clear their identification as the Kunga.
Now, we can also announce that the metrical and morphological analyses were sound – we have the genetic proof that these animals are hybrids of donkeys and hemiones.