Prehistoric horses came in leopard print

Cave paintings accurately depict dappled steeds

Prehistoric painters probably weren’t taking artistic license when they painted polka-dotted horses on the walls of a French cave 25,000 years ago. A new analysis of DNA from the remains of 31 horses found in Europe and Siberia suggests that prehistoric horses came in bay, black and leopard-spotted at least 16,000 years ago.

PAINTED PONIES A new DNA analysis of prehistoric horses suggests that the painters behind the polka-dotted horses painted on cave walls in Pech-Merle, France, weren’t taking artistic license. The Granger Collection, NYC

Previous genetic studies had suggested that horses were either bay or black before domestication, and more elaborate patterns emerged as a result of breeding selection imposed by humans. That left many people wondering why dappled horses adorn the cave walls in Pech-Merle, France, because animals painted on cave walls were usually true-to-life. Some have speculated that spotted horses may have had religious or cultural significance.

In new study published online November 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and colleagues show that some prehistoric horses really did sport spots. Of the 31 horses studied, 18 were bay, seven were black and six carried genetic variants that produce a leopard spotting pattern. The finding suggests the cave painters were depicting what they saw.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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