The artistic skill and attention to detail on display in prehistoric cave paintings is nothing short of astonishing, but one unsolved mystery is whether prehistoric humans simply painted exactly what the saw, or if the art was more symbolic. And recently, we've come a lot closer to answering that question.
Some key pieces of evidence in this debate are paintings of white horses with black spots. These distinctive markings are known as "leopard" spotting in modern horses, but researchers weren't sure if such horses actually existed in Paleolithic times. If these black spots were in fact an invention of the ancient painters, that suggests a level of abstraction or symbolism that we would not have otherwise expected in our ancient counterparts.
Exactly what those black spots might represent has attracted considerably scholarly debate, but that might now all be moot. Researchers at the University of York along with a team of fellow scientists from all over the world have run cutting edge DNA analysis on bone specimens from horses dating back as far as 35,000 years ago. They found that four of the samples originating in Europe carried the gene associated with modern leopard spotting, strongly suggesting these markings existed back then and cave painters were accurately capturing the horses they saw.
York biologist Michi Hofreiter comments:
"Our results suggest that, at least for wild horses, Paleolithic cave paintings, including the remarkable depictions of spotted horses, were closely rooted in the real-life appearance of animals. While previous DNA studies have produced evidence for bay and black horses, our study has demonstrated that the leopard complex spotting phenotype was also already present in ancient horses and was accurately depicted by their human contemporaries nearly 25,000 years ago. Our findings lend support to hypotheses that argue that cave paintings constitute reflections of the natural environment of humans at the time and may contain less of a symbolic or transcendental connotation than often assumed."
Figuring out how important realism was to ancient artists is crucial when evaluating the paintings. While these new findings suggest there's less symbolic material to be teased out of this art than previously assumed, it also opens up new areas of research into how the ancient world looked. If ancient artists did indeed depict what they saw realistically - and this new analysis supports that contention - then their paintings become useful evidence for exploring how the world looked tens of thousands of years ago.
Dr. Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute adds:
"Although taken as a whole, images of horses are often quite rudimentary in their execution, some detailed representations, from both Western Europe and the Ural mountains, are realistic enough to at least potentially represent the actual appearance of the animals when alive. In these cases, attributes of coat colours may also have been depicted with deliberate naturalism, emphasizing colours or patterns that characterised contemporary horses."