An academic at Cambridge University has been left long-faced after discovering a mystery breed of Roman horse found at Pompeii was none other than a donkey.
Experts initially believed that they had unearthed a new, now-extinct breed of horse when they analysed DNA sequences from skeletons found at a house in the ancient Roman town in 2004.
But the idea fell at the first hurdle when scrutinised by Cambridge’s Susan Gurney, who is working with Peter Forster on horse genetics.
She realised there had been a mix-up in the lab, which resulted in horse DNA being combined with that of a donkey to create an artificial hybrid.
Mrs Gurney, from the university’s Institute of Continuing Education, said: “Looking at the research with hindsight, it’s possible to recognise two separate strands of horse and donkey DNA.
“In addition, the horse DNA that appears to have been inadvertently mixed in with the donkey’s genetic information is the same type as that found in another Herculaneum horse, which might be the source of the mistake.”
The original study six years ago analysed the skeletons of equids – animals in the horse family – that belonged to a rich Roman household in Pompeii.
All five were well preserved by the volcanic ash which covered the town and the nearby settlement of Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted in AD79.
Mrs Gurney found that the first 177 nucleotides – molecules which form the structural units of a DNA sequence – match existing patterns for donkeys. The remaining 193 nucleotides match those of an existing breed of horse.
However, the research could still prove important. The Cambridge experts believe the newly-identified donkey may well be the first proof that the “Somali” ass lineage normally found in Italy dates back to at least Roman times.
In other European countries, donkeys are often descended from the Nubian lineage instead.Anyone know which house these donkeys were found in?