My Favorite Discovery: the Kunga

After people find out that I am an archaeologist, I am very often asked what my favorite “find” has been. I am considered “lucky” as an archaeologist, in that I frequently am part of really interesting digs. I have excavated valuable goods such as gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, as well as highly unusual features, such as a 5 meter deep well filled with layers of fetal and adult horses, donkeys, sheep, and goat, plus dogs and wingless vultures, all atop a pile of murdered humans(!). The latter was especially interesting because I specialize in analyzing and intrepreting animal bones. 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. These texts indicated that the animal was some 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 (literally pulling chariots with statues of the gods). We know that they cost up to 10x more than a donkey, and that they had special grasses gathered for their fodder! A special animal, indeed!

For decades, the identity of this animal remained speculative; its remains were never definitively identified.

But I found them and, more importantly, I was able to identify them.

Four Kunga from Umm el-Marra

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 found what was the first tomb of an elite burial complex. These tombs contained 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 bones I’d ever seen. But, they seemed too small to be horse (and it remains unclear whether horses would be found at that time and place).

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. However, 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. Rather, they 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 (such as pulling a plow, wagon, or chariot), 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.

This evidence led to an early accolade for the Kunga, as Syria’s 2008 Animal of the Year!

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. This validates the identification of the Kunga as the world’s first hybrid equid!

Want to read more?

Weber, J.A. 2008. Elite Equids: Redefining equid burials of the mid- to late- 3rd millennium BC from Umm el-Marra, Syria

Weber, J.A. 2012. Restoring Order: Death, Display, and Authority

Weber, J.A. 2017. Elite Equids 2: Seeing the Dead



New York Times