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. 2011 Nov 15;108(46):18626-30.
doi: 10.1073/pnas.1108982108. Epub 2011 Nov 7.

Genotypes of Predomestic Horses Match Phenotypes Painted in Paleolithic Works of Cave Art

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Genotypes of Predomestic Horses Match Phenotypes Painted in Paleolithic Works of Cave Art

Melanie Pruvost et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. .
Free PMC article


Archaeologists often argue whether Paleolithic works of art, cave paintings in particular, constitute reflections of the natural environment of humans at the time. They also debate the extent to which these paintings actually contain creative artistic expression, reflect the phenotypic variation of the surrounding environment, or focus on rare phenotypes. The famous paintings "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle," depicting spotted horses on the walls of a cave in Pech-Merle, France, date back ~25,000 y, but the coat pattern portrayed in these paintings is remarkably similar to a pattern known as "leopard" in modern horses. We have genotyped nine coat-color loci in 31 predomestic horses from Siberia, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula. Eighteen horses had bay coat color, seven were black, and six shared an allele associated with the leopard complex spotting (LP), representing the only spotted phenotype that has been discovered in wild, predomestic horses thus far. LP was detected in four Pleistocene and two Copper Age samples from Western and Eastern Europe, respectively. In contrast, this phenotype was absent from predomestic Siberian horses. Thus, all horse color phenotypes that seem to be distinguishable in cave paintings have now been found to exist in prehistoric horse populations, suggesting that cave paintings of this species represent remarkably realistic depictions of the animals shown. This finding lends support to hypotheses arguing that cave paintings might have contained less of a symbolic or transcendental connotation than often assumed.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
Map of key locations of Paleolithic cave art containing horse paintings. The Franco–Cantabrian region containing most of the Paleolithic cave paintings is highlighted.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Horse phenotypes found in Paleolithic artwork from caves in Lascaux (bay) (photo from N. Aujoulat from the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, France. The animal corresponds to the second horse from the “Panel of the Chinese horses.”); Chauvet (black) [The picture is showing a panel of horses (detail L., about 1.10 m). The photo (slide no. 12) is used with permission from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Regional Direction for Cultural Affairs, Rhône-Alpes region, Regional Department of Archeology], and Pech-Merle (“leopard” spotted) (photo from P. Cabrol ©, Centre de Préhistoire du Pech Merle. The picture shows the panel of the dappled horses—“Le panneau des Chevaux ponctués”, Cabrerets, Lot France), all France, and their genetic counterparts in modern horses. (Left to Right) Bay–dun Przewalski's horse (genotype: AA/− EE/− CC/CC CHch/CHch DD/− LPlp/LPlp Zz/Zz); black–dun Konik with winter coat (genotype: Aa/Aa EE/− CC/CC CHch/CHch DD/− LPlp/LPlp Zz/Zz); black–dun Konik with summer coat (same genotype); and leopard complex spotted Knabstrupper (genotype: Aa/Aa EE/− CC/CC CHch/CHch Dd/Dd LPLP/LPlp Zz/Zz).

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