Prehistoric Animals Collection
ICE AGE HORSE FOSSILS

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Horse

The ancestors of the modern horse, Equus Caballus, can be first traced back to the Eocene Period 60 million years go to a little multi-toed horse-like creature not any larger than a fox. This earliest of horse appeared in North America and was a flexible and likely very nimble animal that ran on five-toed feet. Over a period of tens of millions of years, several species developed and the body size of the horse increased and became more robust. The feet developed then into three-toed limbs and eventually, horses with a single hoof emerged. Over the last few million years, horses migrated from North America into the Eurasian continent. The horse died out at the end of the Pleistocene in North America, but survived on the Eurasian continent where it segregated into different breeds adapted to a wide variety of bio territories, before eventually being tamed by humans.

The domestication of the horse a few thousand years ago, has led to a dizzying array of breeds. Different prehistoric breeds of horses seem to have been domesticated at different locations in Europe and Asia. Today, none of the domesticated horse breeds resemble what the prehistoric horses would have exactly looked like. The Przewalski Horse, discovered around the end of the 19th century, seems to most closely resemble the wild horses of the mammoth steppe that are depicted in European cave painting made by Upper Palaeolithic humans. However, this species is not pure anymore and has received influx of other horse species. Next to that, Prehistoric horse specialists like Professor Vera Eisenmann seriously debate the Przewalski being a direct ancestor of the Pleistocene steppe horse. The present day Exmoor pony from Great Britain seems to most closely resemble a prehistoric pony that has adapted itself to the present day climate and vegetation. Its long eye lashes and manes serve to divert the rain water that falls in abundance on the British Isles and the North west of Europe. The Exmoor pony is also increasingly used in European nature reserve, as a proxy for the prehistoric horse that has adapted itself to the present day circumstances. Next to that, there are populations of the Yakut horse breed living in a semi-wild or wild state in the former Russian Republic of Yakutia. These horses are very primitive and totally adapted to the icy circumstances that resemble the climate and bioterritory of the Ice Age.

As a herding animal, the horse was an abundant and important food source, as well as a vital resource for its hide and bone, to prehistoric humans. The presence of horse bones at fossil human sites increases in variety and abundance around 50,000 years ago indicating that the horse starts to become a prey of greater importance to Neanderthals. This was likely attributed to better stone tool technology in the development of flaked pointed projectile points which could have been hafted on wood shafts and used as stabbing or throwing weapons. Later during the days of the Cro-Magnon hunters, the degree to which horses are hunted increases as a result of better tool technology and ingenuity in strategy. Evidence of this is found at a prehistoric kill site in Salutre, France, where the bones of 10,000 horses at the base of a cliff show how herds were driven over the edge and killed en masse, over numerous events.

The importance of the horse in the lives of primitive humans is exemplified in the famous prehistoric cave art sites in France and Spain. The caves in Lascaux and Pech-Merle have been dated to around 17,000 years ago and the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave paintings dated to 31,000 years ago. The paintings often show the horse as an object of prey but the effort in its depiction and aesthetic style also demonstrate the great majesty man saw in the horse.

The horse is featured in what many regard as the earliest known art object dating to 34,000 years ago. The Vogelherd Horse, named after the cave in Germany from which it was found, is a 5 cm long carving of a horse made from mammoth tusk. Could this have been regarded as a magical talisman to be held by a prehistoric human in order to bestow the swiftness and majesty that they saw in the horse?

by Dr. Henri Kerkdijk-Otten and John McNamara

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