About 25,000 years ago, humans began painting a curious creature on the walls of European caves. Among the rhinos, wild cattle, and other animals, they sketched a white horse with black spots. Although such horses are popular breeds today, scientists didn’t think they existed before humans domesticated the species about 5,000 years ago. Now, a new study of prehistoric horse DNA concludes that spotted horses did indeed roam ancient Europe, suggesting that early artists may have been reproducing what they saw rather than creating imaginary creatures…
A small number of caves, including 25,000-year-old Pech Merle in southern France, feature horses painted white with black spots. Some archaeologists have argued that this leopard-like pattern was fanciful and symbol laden rather than realistic. Indeed, in a 2009 analysis of DNA from the bones of nearly 90 ancient horses dated from about 12,000 to 1,000 years ago, researchers found genetic evidence for bay and black coat colors but no sign of the spotted variety, suggesting that the spotted horse could have been the figment of some artist’s imagination. Although researchers can only speculate on what prehistoric artists were trying to express, hypotheses range from shamanistic and ritualistic activities to attempts to capture the spirit of horses and other animals that ancient humans hunted.
But in a new paper…in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the same team reports finding that spotted horses did indeed exist around the time that cave artists were doing their best work. The researchers, led by geneticists Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and Michael Hofreiter of the University of York in the United Kingdom, analyzed DNA from an older sample of 31 prehistoric horses from Siberia as well as Eastern and Western Europe, ranging from about 20,000 to 2,200 years ago. They found that 18 of the horses were bay, seven were black, but six had a genetic variant — called LP — that corresponds to leopard-like spotting in modern horses. Moreover, out of 10 Western European horses estimated to be about 14,000 years old, four had the LP genetic marker, suggesting that spotted horses were not uncommon during the heyday of cave painting.
If so, the team argues, prehistoric artists may have been drawing what they saw rather than creating imaginary creatures. Prehistoric horses came in at least “three coat color[s],” Ludwig says, “and exactly these three [colors] are also seen in cave paintings. Cave art is more realistic than often suggested…”
Not that any of the research will distract any scientist who thinks he’s also expert in the thought processes of artists.