Kunga

Article

May 23, 2022

The kunga or kúnga was a hybrid equine used as a draft animal in ancient Syria and Mesopotamia. He is the first known hybrid created by humans. It was a military asset and a mark of economic and political status. Cuneiform writings from the middle of the 3rd millennium BC describe the animal as a hybrid but do not indicate the parent species. Modern paleogenomics reveals that it was the offspring of a domesticated donkey and a male Syrian wild ass. The kungas fell into disuse after the introduction of domestic horses to the region at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE.

Elite Equines

Third millennium BCE cuneiform from the Ebla kingdom and the Mesopotamian region of Diyala names several types of equids (ANŠE, 𒀲), including one specified as the kúnga (ANŠE BAR.AN, 𒀲𒁇𒀭), which appear between about 2600 and 2000 BCE; these expensive animals, highly valued by the elite, were bred in Nagar, whose rulers used them themselves and monopolized their production for distribution in the region. Ebla records record repeated costly purchases of kúnga equids from Nagar, and it was apparently in connection with this trade that the "high superintendents of charioteers" and those responsible for maintaining the Ebla kúngas herd became returned to Nagar. The King of Ebla offers them as gifts to other rulers. It has been suggested that the kúnga trade was central to the economies of kingdoms in the region and that the conspicuous display of such expensive animals in official art directly associated them with royalty and power. A pair of seals from the time, including one from Nagar, depict equines with gods in the divine realm.

Hybrid Nature

Period descriptions suggest they were hybrids, and indicate that, like most hybrid equids, they were sterile. For example, foals are described in nursery herds with adult donkeys or onagers and donkey foals, never with kúnga parents. Production would therefore have been an intensive process: they would not have established a domesticated line, improvable by selective breeding, but rather each kunga was produced de novo from the two parental species in breedings. Likewise, the need to repeatedly buy new animals to maintain a stable of kúngas indicates that there was no breeding of kungas.

Archeology

Representations

Kúngas were used as draft animals, with the smaller males or females being used to pull plows, while the stronger individuals are found in more ceremonial or martial roles, pulling the four-wheeled battle carts or the chariots of kings and gods. They appear in this role in official depictions such as the Standard of Ur, a mosaic dating from around 2,600 BCE, and numerous seals, while a rein ring similar to those depicted in the standard of Ur was found in Ur, decorated with an equine. These depictions are more likely kungas than donkeys, which only appear in lesser roles. Illustrations show what appears to be a replacement team of these equines, led by ropes passed through rings placed in their upper lips. Their appearance in cuneiform art and official representations seems to follow a development parallel to that of the royalties of the region, suggesting that the kúnga constituted a mark of prestige used for propagandistic purposes by the monarchs.

Burials