An international team of researchers has used ancient DNA to shed new light on the realism of horses depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. The team, which includes researchers from the University of York, has found that all the colour variations seen in Paleolithic cave paintings – including distinctive ‘leopard’ spotting – existed in pre-domestic horse populations, lending weight to the argument that the artists were reflecting their natural environment. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) today, is also the first to produce evidence for white spotted phenotypes in pre-domestic horses. Previous ancient DNA studies have only produced evidence for bay and black horses. Archaeologists have long debated whether works of art from the Paleolithic period, particularly cave paintings, are reflections of the natural environment or have deeper abstract or symbolic meanings.
This is particularly true of the cave painting “The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle” in France, which dates back more than 25,000 years and clearly depicts white horses with dark spots. The dappled horses’ spotted coat pattern bears a strong resemblance to a pattern known as ‘leopard’ in modern horses. However, as some researchers believed a spotted coat phenotype unlikely at this time, pre-historians have often argued for more complex explanations, suggesting the spotted pattern was in some way symbolic or abstract.