Thousands of years before thoroughbred racing and polo were called the “sport of kings” and the showgrounds in Wellington, Florida were full of the equestrian elite, there was an equid that was as prized as any modern sport horse. Known in archaeological and historical circles as the “kunga”, it was an animal that appeared when urban civilizations, kingdoms, and writing emerged in Syria and Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE. But what exactly a kunga was wasn’t known with any degree of certainty until now.

Published online in Science Magazine, researchers sequenced DNA and genomes from an Early Bronze Age burial site in Umm el-Marra, Syria, and the results were significant.

“When we first started discovering the graves of these animals, it was clear that they were something special,” explains Dr. Glenn M. Schwartz, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, and the director of the excavations at the site where the equid tombs were found. “It was a unique find in that tombs were created specifically for animals… Since we knew of the mysterious kunga equids from the ancient texts, we suspected that these were kungas. And since the bones of the animals resembled both donkeys and wild asses, but were not exactly like either one, we also suspected that they were hybrids.”

One of the excavations at the site where the equid tombs were found. (photo courtesy Dr. Glenn M. Schwartz)


The researchers excavated the equid burials and studied the animal bones, which were submitted for DNA analysis, which clinched the argument and confirmed that the kunga was a hybrid of the female domestic donkey and the Syrian wild ass. “In the ancient written records, the kunga is described as a special equid, very expensive to acquire, reserved for kings and members of the elite and used for display and war,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But it was not certain from the texts exactly what this animal was. The results from Umm el-Marra, with its separate burials of special equids, reveal that the kunga was a hybrid, the first of its kind.”

According to the paper, kungas were bred for use in diplomacy, ceremony, and warfare. The researchers state that texts from the era make references to the prices of such an animal as “six times that of a donkey” as well as expressing modern-type concerns over the costs of feed. One of these ancient texts referred to large-sized male kungas used to pull the vehicles of “nobility and gods,” pre-dating the horse-drawn chariots we’ve become familiar with in history books and in movies such as Ben Hur.

The study also found that kungas appeared to be bred in distinct breeding centers outside urban areas, much like modern breeders, before the desire for these animals fell off and finally ended after domestic horses entered the region approximately 500 years later, around 4,000 BCE.

“The significance of this discovery is that we learn how the members of the newly emergent upper class distinguished themselves through their animal companions, and that they went to a new degree in the modification of the natural world by creating a hybrid animal,” Dr. Schwartz adds.

That’s one equine mystery solved; now if these scientists could discover why my horse spooks every time the jump standards move to another part of the arena, we’re all set.