Section of Anthropology

Reconstruction of the Ice Age European horse, based on Paleolithic cave art and mobile art.

Sandra L. Olsen
Section of Anthropology
Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Recent research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Sandra Olsen and Mara Coffman has aimed at reconstructing the appearance of the Ice Age horse of Europe by examining over 400 images depicted in Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) art on cave walls and carved on bone, antler, and stone artifacts. The reconstruction based on this study (see above) illustrates that the European wild horse, Equus ferus, closely resembled the Asiatic wild horse, Equus przewalskii, although it may have had more extensive striping on the withers and legs and a darker coat in some cases.

Horses were hunted for their meat, skin, and bones in many areas of Eurasia by modern humans during the Ice Age. Some strategies of horse hunting have been recreated through a long-term study of the Upper Paleolithic site of Solutré, in east-central France, where over 30,000 horses were killed between 32,000 and 12,000 years ago (see Selected Publications). Local topography, modern wild and feral horse behavior, the horse remains and available prehistoric technology were examined. From these various lines of evidence it has been possible to reconstruct the likely scenario that occurred on repeated occasions at Solutré. During their spring and autumn migrations between the Saône River floodplain and the foothills of the Massif Central, bands of wild horses were detoured into a natural corral created by a cul-de-sac in the cliff face of the Roche du Solutré. There they were ambushed and dispatched with spears. Solutré remains the best example of a horse kill site in Europe. A summary of Olsen's interpretations can be found in Horses Through Time.

The origin or origins of horse domestication is currently a hot topic in archaeology. The time and location(s) of this event are debated by scholars across Eurasia. Sandra Olsen and colleagues are currently working at a site called Botai, in north-central Kazakhstan to see if it holds clues to the beginnings of taming and eventually domesticating horses. Evidence for identifying domestication among archaeological remains includes: a high frequency of juvenile male remains indicating herd culling; wear on lower premolars caused by a bit; the occurrence of horse-related artifacts like bridle cheekpieces, bits, and thong-makers; certain changes in overall size or proportion of the skeleton; and the distribution of horses outside their natural range.

The horse has had a bigger impact on societies through the ages than any other animal. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History currently offers an exciting book filled with color photographs and chapters by leading authorities in a variety of equine fields on this subject. Horses Through Time is available at our gift shop or can be ordered from most book stores.