The Dappled Horses of Pech Merle

The dappled horses of Pech Merle

One of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric cave paintings are the dappled horses of Pech Merle, a panel of horses drawn more than 29,000 years ago in a cave in Southern France. Discovered in 1922 by three teenagers from the village of Cabrerets, the caves feature more than 800 prehistoric drawings.

These cave paintings, from Lascaux are the traditional black and bay of prehistoric horses. But the horned animal has spots . . . perhaps it’s a bull? The Lascaux caves are located in the Dordogne region of France.

The dappled, or spotted, horses have been a subject for controversy for decades, because of their spots. Up until the discovery of these murals, DNA from the bones and teeth of horses that lived 7,000 to 20,000 years ago showed that they were either black or bay. It is not until they are domesticated that animals start to display a wider variety of coat colors. Were these horses proof that spotted horses also existed in the wild? Or an attempt by the artists to be be artistic?

To answer that question, researchers used compared the DNA of modern horses and those that lived during the Stone Age. The spotted gene existed in the ancient samples, so the drawings were, indeed a realistic depiction of an animal that coexisted with the artists.

Take a tour through the Pesh Merle caves. While the caves have been open to the public since 1926, it will be awhile before anyone can visit them again. But count me as someone who has added this to their bucket list.

Were cave artists women?

Research into the cave paintings has yielded more recent discoveries about the artists, this time. It turns out that contrary to researchers assumptions that the cave paintings were done my men, perhaps returning from a successful hunt and telling their stories, the artists may well have been women.

How do they know? By the hand prints. Many of the cave paintings exist next to hand prints or stenciled outlines of hands.

Take a step sideways here. In 2002 a British biologist, John Manning, studied the shape and relative dimensions of human hands, such as the relative length of different fingers hoping the shape and dimensions might reveal such characteristics as gender, sexual preference and susceptibility to heart disease.

When archaeology professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University saw Manning’s work, he realized that the shapes of male and female hands differ in predictable ways — and, more intriguingly, that the hand prints he’d seen in photos of cave paintings looked distinctly female. Using Manning’s work, Snow conducted two studies, the latest of which was published in 2013.

Snow analyzed hundreds of images of hands. He found that male and female hands differ in predictable ways, but only within a particular ethnic population. So to analyze prehistoric cave paintings in Europe, Snow used as benchmarks the hands of ethnic Europeans whose ancestry matched that of the people who lived in Europe in the Late Stone Age.

Ancient handprints usually feature the left hand as that is the one easier for the artist to trace.

Snow found 32 images in ten cave painting sites in France and Spain that were clear enough for analysis. His analysis concluded that 24 of the hand prints were female, 5 were adolescent males, and 3 were adult males. The analysis focused on the length of the hand and fingers as well as the ratios of lengths of the index finger, ring finger, and little finger.

So, it’s entirely possible that these fabulous, realistic and fascinating cave paintings came from the imaginations of the women.

7 thoughts on “The Dappled Horses of Pech Merle

  1. R. Dale Guthrie, a PhD currently at Fairbanks’ University of Alaska’s Museum of Natural History, published an exhaustive study of paleolithic art…to include the Peche Merle horses. He did measurements of the hand prints and concluded that the majority of paintings were done by teenaged males. His book, “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” (U. of Chicago Press) covers a LOT of ground.

    I’m glad you posted the picture of the Lascaux cave paintings. The real Lascaux has been permanently closed to visitors because our exhalations and our body heat, with all the water we lose just existing, raised the humidity in the cave to the point where fungus started covering the paintings. This and other caves like it are far too precious to lose. Soooooooo, the French government sealed the real Lascaux after creating a replica that is said to be, inch for inch (okay, centimeter for centimeter) an exact duplicate.

    I’m assuming the above photo is taken from the replica, because it’s ..well, it’s much too garish and honestly, obviously amateurish. Before Covid I had planned to actually GO to see the replica caves, but if the picture is indicative of the care they took to duplicate the paintings, I’d have been disappointed. Even so…

    By the way, yes, the horned animal is that of an aurochs. Both sexes of this now extinct bovid had horns. Big ones.

    As you may have guessed, paleolithic art such as the caves in Dordogne have been my passion for many years.

    1. Interesting how much we still don’t know. I visited one of the caves in France back in the early 1980s. I’ve been trying to kickstart my memory to figure out which one. I’m pretty sure it was on a trip with my mother and Grandmother to Sarlat, where my Grandmother had spent time in a convent as a young woman. I also spent time in the Dordogne in the ’93 and ’94 . . . I am kicking myself for not visiting Pech Merle at the time. However, if the caves open up again, I will be there.

  2. There are a LOT of painted caves in Europe. None as spectacular as Lascaux, but still….
    As for regrets, I lived in Germany for 7 years, courtesy of the US Army. I can blame my job for preventing me from doing a lot of touristy stuff. Otherwise I still kick myself for not going to see the many sites throughout Germany rife with dinosaur fossils, paleolithic sites, etc. Hell, I would have loved to go see Stonehenge in England, or the White Horse near it, oh……….maybe once this blooming virus is done I’ll try.
    Um….your grandmother was in a convent? As a nun, or?? Because usually nuns, like priests, usually don’t have children….
    If it’s none of my business, please accept my apologies.

    1. Stonehenge is amazing. My husband is British and we went to see it when you could still walk among the stones. I didn’t visit the Chalk Horses but that’s on my list. We walked the Cotswold Way many years ago and next I’d like to do the walks near the horses.

      My grandmother as part of a large Catholic family. She planned to be a nun and spent several years as a novitiate, including time at Sarlat. My great grandfather had plumbing installed at the convent on her behalf! She decided to leave before she took her final vows, although she remained extremely devout the rest of her life. Ironically, she met my grandfather, who was both married and Jewish, on a cruise to Cuba. He converted to Catholicism so his marriage was annulled. Always sounded like a loophole to me.

  3. Loophole!!! No kidding! I was raised Catholic but have been atheist since 2nd grade…that was after a nun chastised me for crying over the loss of my cat. She told me, no, animals don’t go to heaven, they have no souls. Well…to this day, I’m of the opinion that any place that doesn’t allow my animal friends is no place I want to go to.

    The “Chalk Horse”. Okay, I didn’t know it’s name, but I’d still love to see it. AND stonehenge…AND some other spots, like Hadrian’s wall, which I wonder if it still exists.

    As for you, Liz…I’m here on the West Coast, so I get the weather news from the TV news, but from what I hear, you’re up to your butts in snow? WIth a Nor’easter on the way? Good luck!

    1. With the help of my husband, I have figured out that we visited Font-de-Gaume near Sarlat. As for snow, we got nearly a foot yesterday. Beautiful but if we didn’t get any more this winter, I’d be happy.

  4. Well, hang on, chica, because from what I’ve seen on the news, you’re in for a big dump. I feel the same way about snow. I grew up in Michigan, where it snowed for months. Now I live in WA, where while we do get snow, it’s usually not in the quantities that you get in Conn. Yes, it rains. A LOT. But at least I don’t have to shovel it out of my driveway.

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