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Ice Age 25,000 Year-Old Painters

11/08/2021 04:15 PM ET

Ice Age Painters - During the last ice age, 25,000 years ago, a man - or woman - painted spotted horses on the walls of caves at what is now Pech Merle, France.

Scholars still argue about why. Did this prehistoric Picasso paint in order to faithfully depict his surroundings? Or did he work for some other purpose, perhaps creative or religious?

Did spotty horses even exist back then? Until now, researchers had generally thought that wild horses of the period were solid black or bay.

Now a new genetic analysis shows otherwise - suggesting that the ancient painter was taking little artistic license.

Sampling DNA from the bones and teeth of 31 horses that lived in Europe and Siberia during the time the paintings were created, an international research team found that several of the animals had a genetic variant that causes the “leopard” pattern familiar in modern horses such as appaloosas.

The discovery, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, “suggests that the painters in Pech Merle actually had spotted horses in their vicinity,” said Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, a geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved in the research. “It would appear as if they, at least in this case, were painting things they really saw.”

A team led by Arne Ludwig, a geneticist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, found that six of the ancient horses they sampled had a gene associated with the spotting pattern.

All came from Europe.

Four dated from the Upper Paleolithic era, like the Pech Merle paintings and ones at the famous complex of caves in Lascaux, France.

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