For years archaeologists have debated whether ancient images of animals – including striking pictures of spotted horses – on cave walls and ceilings were actual representations of what the artists were seeing on the landscape or simply images drawn from imagination.
A group of researchers using DNA comparisons between modern horses and those that lived during the Stone Age has deciphered the mystery, determining that the drawings are a realistic depiction of animals that coexisted with the artists, according to a New York Times article. Apparently people drew spotted horses because they saw spotted horses.
The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, grew out of an effort to discern the coat colors of ancient horses to help figure out when they were domesticated, a pivotal moment in the development of human societies. According to an author of the study, Michael Hofreiter, an evolutionary biologist at the University of York in England:
“What we found is that there were really only these three color patterns — spotted or dappled; blackish ones; and brown ones. These are the three phenotypes we find in the wild populations. And then we realized these phenotypes are exactly the ones you see in cave paintings.”
In general, domesticated species exist in a far greater variety of colors than wild ones, so understanding color variation in fossil animals can help pinpoint the timing of their domestication.
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