Sunday, December 11, 2011


Painted horse, Grotte de Niaux, Ariege, France.

Painted horse, Lascaux cave, France.

With the discovery of the magnificent painted caves of Europe people began to learn what had been lost from nature in the spread of civilization. These painted panels pictured animals that had been plentiful but were now extinct or extremely rare. Among these were the prehistoric wild horses seen painted in full color on cave walls.

Konik horses.
On December 4, 2011, I published a posting about 20th  century attempts to back breed from modern cattle to recreate the magnificent aurochs bulls illustrated on the walls of caves in Europe. Also, in the 20th century there were attempts recreate the horses illustrated in the painted caves of Europe through breeding. One attempt resulted in the horse known as the konik. In Polish, konik is used to refer to a horse showing primitive coloration and characteristics. Koniks show many primitive markings including a dun coat and dorsal stripe.
Konik horses grazing in winter.

Photo of the last remaining Tarpan, 1884.
In 1936, Professor Tadeusz Vetulani of Poznań University began attempts to breed the recently extinct tarpan back to its original state. To achieve this he used horses from the Biłgoraj area descended from wild tarpans captured in 1780 in Białowieża Forest and kept until 1808 in Zamoyski zoo. These had later been given to local peasants and crossbred with domestic horses. The Polish government commandeered all the koniks that displayed tarpan-like features. The result of this selective breeding program is that semi-wild herds of koniks can be seen today in many nature reserves and parks, and can also be seen in the last refugium in Bialowieza Forest.
Heck horses in Austria. Public domain.

Another program resulted in the Heck horse. This breed was created by the German zoologist brothers Heinz Heck and Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, at the Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo) in Germany in their attempt to breed back to the tarpan (equus ferus ferus), and as was the case with their attempts to breed back to the extinct aurochs from modern cattle their efforts attempting to recreate the Tarpan was supported by the Nazi party. The first foal born from the program was a colt born on May 22, 1933 at the Tierpark Hellabrunn.
The Heck brothers bred together several European small horse and pony breeds hypothesized to be descended from the tarpan. They used mares of the Konik, Icelandic horse, and Gotland breeds. These mares were bred to stallions of a wild horse type known as Przewalski's horse. The Hecks believed that the wild Przewalski blood would "help to draw out the wild characteristics" that they felt lay dormant in the domesticated pony breed mares.

Heck Horse.

Heck horses are dun or grullo (a dun variant) in color, with no white markings. The breed has primitive markings, including a dorsal stripe and sometimes zebra markings on the legs. Heck horses generally stand between 12.2 and 13.2 hands (50 and 54 inches, 127 and 137 cm) tall. The head is large, the withers low, and the legs, hindquarters, and hooves are strong.
As with the attempts by the same Heck brothers to breed back to the aurochs, we have another case where the original animal had inspired our ancestors to create their images in cave art, and the cave art later inspired modern attempts to recreate the extinct original animal. Another case of life imitating art.

Levy, Sharon, Once and Future Giants, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.

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