Prehistoric painters were most likely not taking creative license when they illustrated leopard-spotted horses on the walls of a cave in Pech-Merle, France some 25,000 years ago, reported Science News.
Researchers analyzed the DNA of 31 horses in Europe and Siberia from more than 16,000 years ago. The results reveal the animals likely grew hair in an array of colors and patterns, such as bay, black and polka-dotted. The new findings oppose earlier genetic studies, which suggested horses only came in bay or black before domestication. More elaborate patterns were previously thought to develop due to human-controlled breeding selection.
The new study, published online November 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was lead by Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. Ludwig and colleagues studied 31 horses—of them, fossil DNA proves 18 were bay, seven were black and six carried genetic variants that produce a leopard spotting pattern. Some researchers have speculated that spotted horses may have carried religious or cultural significance to Native peoples.
Horses account for 30 percent of the animals depicted in European cave paintings from this era, reported the Daily Tribune in Bahrain.