Genotypes of predomestic horses match phenotypes painted in Paleolithic works of cave art

Melanie Pruvost, Rebecca Bellone, Norbert Benecke, Edson Sandoval-Castellanos, Michael Cieslak, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Arturo Morales-Muniz, Terry O'Connor, Monika Reissmann, Michael Hofreiter, Arne Ludwig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 similar to 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18626-18630
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
Early online date7 Nov 2011
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2011


  • ancient DNA; single nucleotide polymorphism; leopard complex spotting; Franco-Cantabrian region
  • transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily M1

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