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5 December 2019
Stone Age artists mesmerised by horses

Of every four animals drawn upon a cave wall in Stone Age France and Spain, at least one is likely to be a horse, yet these images made thousands of years before humans domesticated horses.
     Georges Sauvet, an expert in prehistoric art, has collected more than 4,700 examples of Palaeolithic drawings, paintings and engravings - figurative representations anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 years old, from what are now France and Spain. Using several statistical analyses, Sauvet shows that horses are portrayed in a noticeably special manner in ancient European art. Nearly 30 percent of all the animals in his collection are horses, and more than three quarters of the sites include at least one image of a horse. While horses and bison together make up roughly half the animals depicted, the horse appears to have a special status. It is found in 44 percent of the panels, and is much more consistently featured than the bison. Usually horses appear larger than lions, rhinos, mammoths, bison, and bears.
     Sauvet, who works at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures in France, says regional variations are mainly stylistic and thematic: "Even the higher number of hind depictions in the Cantabrian region or the 'preference' for mammoth depictions in the Perigord do not undermine the primacy of the horse as the preferred subject. They chose remarkable locations, at high and visible places to draw large horses. It is as if the choice of spectacular locations served to symbolically signify that horse was 'on the top', above the other species." Sauvet thinks one of the clues is the direction the horses face. While most animals are drawn oriented to the left, horses are the only species that is predominantly oriented to the right. Claude Barriere noticed this in 1997. Sauvet says his own findings confirm Barriere's observation.
     According to Sauvet, drawing an animal with perfect proportions on the wall or ceiling of a cave is not easy, and the images of horses are particularly accurate in form, dimensions and situation. In fact, a study in 2012 found that prehistoric humans were better at drawing horses than modern artists.
     Sauvet regards rock art as linked to mythical stories, supposing horses might have possessed a sort of mythical status.

Edited from Science Alert (23 November 2019)

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