Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cave Paintings May Have Been Made By Prehistoric 'Realists'

The Dappled Horses of Peche Merle
Cave paintings are some of the most beautiful forms of art on Earth. Vast underground galleries have been found all across the world. Some of the depictions are massive, metres in size.

Alongside the familiar shapes of horses and lions are beasts outside of human experience such as the mammoth. Alongside these are even stranger creatures and abstract shapes and symbols. For many years archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were unsure what many of the images were or why they were created.

One such mystery is the 25,000 year old 'Dappled Horses of Peche Merle' which adorns the rocky walls of the cave system in France. No such creature exists today. We have no physical evidence of it in the fossil record, as pelts rarely preserve and even then, colours do not remain. Now a team led by Dr Melanie Pruvost of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and the Department of Natural Sciences at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, have solved this problem.

They took samples from the teeth and bones of more than 30 different ancient horses with a geographical range from western Europe to Siberia with a maximum date of 35,000 years old. From these samples they extracted and decoded the fragments of DNA, setting up a rough genomic sketch. They specifically looked at the genes which encoded the colouration of the coat. They found that 25 had the single colour 'patterning' with five possessing black fur and 18 with bay fur.

However 6 possessed the genetic variation that encoded a spotted, leopard-like, coat. Ultimately, they found that all of the different coat variations, depicted at the Peche Merle cave, could be found in the prehistoric horse populations across Europe and Siberia. The team suggest that many early artists were realists, as opposed to surrealists or dreamers. Genetic analysis is fast becoming a part of earth sciences like anthropology and palaeontology. When fossil evidence fails to provide, only genetic evidence can fill the gap.