Pleistocene Spotted Horses

25,000 years ago, an artist painted this picture of a spotted horse on a wall of Peche Merle Cave in France.  Later, another artist painted a fish over it, but most of that painting has faded away.

In my opinion the horse was the most beautiful animal to live during the Pleistocene, excluding a select number of female Homo sapiens who may have been kept in good condition.  I admire the round smoothness of their muscles, and the majestic qualities of their manes and tails.  I can understand why artists enjoy painting them.  But it’s not just modern artists who try to capture the beauty of  horses.  An ancient 5 foot long painting of a spotted horse was discovered in Peche Merle Cave, France in 1922.

The painting is believed to be 25,000 years old.  Most of the paintings on cave walls in Europe are thought to date to 25,000 BP, but some may date to about 16,000 BP.  The entrance to Peche Merle Cave became covered in sediment shortly after the paintings were drawn and because they were sealed from the atmosphere, they remained in pristine condition.  Early in the 20th century, erosion once again created an opening to the cave.  In addition to the spotted horse, the cavemen drew single-coated horses, bison, aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), elk, mountain goat, caribou, lion, woolly mammoth, and fish.  Children’s footprints, dating to this time period, still exist in part of the cave.  Archaeologists found harpoons and other artifacts here as well.  The bones of bear, hyena, horse, bison, and deer have rested here for millennia.  Archaeologists believe people inhabited caves because they provided a natural refuge from the harsh Ice Age climate.

Paleontologists think the horse was the most abundant large mammal in Ice Age Europe and an important source of food for humans.  The French still eat horsemeat–restaurants serving horsemeat adorn the top of their doors with horseshoes.  In what’s now Georgia horses were probably the third most abundant mammal during the Pleistocene behind white tail deer and long-nosed peccary, though during stadials, when grasslands expanded, they may have been the most abundant.  It’s difficult to tell from the limited fossil record in state.

Anthropologists used to think the spots on the Peche Merle horse were symbolic, but a recent study upends this belief.  Scientists analyzed the DNA from 30 Pleistocene-age fossil horse specimens, and they found that 18 had reddish-brown coats, 6 had jet black coats, and 6 had spotted coats.  This means about 18% of Pleistocene horses in Europe had spotted coats.  The species of horse that lived in southeastern North America was the same as the one that lived in Europe, though undoubtedly it differed at the subspecific level.  It’s likely about 1 in 5 horses that lived in what’s now Georgia during the Pleistocene also had spotted coats.

Spotted horses were the same species as the brown and black coated horses.  Like today’s feral mustangs, Pleistocene horses came in many different colors.  There’s been a lot of confusion among paleontologists over exactly how many different species of horses lived in North America and Europe during the Pleistocene.  The whole classification mess can probably be simplified into 2 main species: horses and donkeys. The geographical range was so vast those 2 species consisted of hundreds of subspecies, now nearly all extinct.  But at least today, domesticated horses are alive and well and exist as many different breeds.

This spotted horse is a breed known as an Appaloosa.  Obviously, horses still carry the gene for spotted coats.

Map of Peche Merle Cave in France.  Too bad it’s so far away.  I’d really like to visit this attraction.


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7 Responses to “Pleistocene Spotted Horses”

  1. Mark L. Says:

    Mark, have you seen the recent proposal to allow horsemeat to be exported again in the US? Several western states see it as a money maker and way to increase horse value. PETA is of course against it, but a lot of westerners see it as a positive, if it’s correctly regulated.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Yeah, I heard about that on the radio.

    I’ve always wanted to try horse meat. Supposedly, it tastes like sweet beef.

    It’s a shame to kill such a beautiful animal though.

  3. Mark L. Says:

    Horse is pretty good, I had it in France. It’s lean with no gamey taste (at least the stuff I had)…I think it was a flank cut. I guess everything has to die, so for horses it’s either the ‘glue factory’, crayons, or dog food for now. I would be offended to see horsemeat ‘snuck’ into our diet without our knowledge, though.

  4. James Robert Smith Says:

    In reference to the spots:

    Spots are a common thread in the artwork of primitive people throughout the world. Wherever you go and find these paintings on rocks–from Australia to North America to Europe–you find images of people and animals with spots present. On the animals. Around the figures. On and around figures of humans.

    It’s thought now that these spots are the way these people translated the spots they saw while in the throes of religious dances, exhaustion, temporary oxygen deprivation, etc.

    Or in this instance it could just be a spotted horse. (However, the spots do continue in the spaces around the horse.)

  5. markgelbart Says:

    I guess they’re like the spots I see when I stand up after squatting in my garden while working in 100 degree Georgia heat.

  6. James Robert Smith Says:


  7. The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie « GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] Incidentally, Dr. Guthrie believes the red spots on some cave paintings of Pleistocene horses represent the tracking of blood from wounded animals.  This is an alternative explanation for the ones I gave in a previous blog entry– […]

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