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14 November 2011
Prehistoric cave paintings of horses were spot-on

Long thought by many as possible abstract or symbolic expressions as opposed to representations of real animals, the famous palaeolithic horse paintings found in caves such as Lascaux and Chauvet in France likely reflect what the prehistoric humans actually saw in their natural environment, suggest researchers who conducted a recent DNA study.
     An international team of researchers genotyped and analysed nine coat-color types in 31 wild horses dating as far back as 35,000 years ago from bone specimens in 15 different locations that included Siberia, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula.
     They found that all colour schemes for horses seen in Palaeolithic cave paintings, including the distinctive 'leopard' spotting actually existed in ancient pre-domestic horse populations, supporting the theory that the cave artists were reflecting what they actually saw. Four Pleistocene and two Copper Age bone samples showed genetic evidence of the leopard spotting, and bone samples from 18 other horses showed evidence of bay and black, bay being the most common colour for horses depicted in the cave paintings.
     Said team researcher Professor Michi Hofreiter of the Department of Biology at the University of York, UK: "While previous DNA studies have produced evidence for bay and black horses, our study has demonstrated that the leopard complex spotting phenotype was also already present in ancient horses and was accurately depicted by their human contemporaries nearly 25,000 years ago. Our findings lend support to hypotheses that argue that cave paintings constitute reflections of the natural environment of humans at the time and may contain less of a symbolic or transcendental connotation than often assumed."

Edited from Popular Archaeology, Science Now (7 November 2011)

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