Saturday, October 17, 2015


Paleolithic Horse paintings from Chauvet cave.
Photo from

There is an interesting school of thought today that maintains that cave paintings of horses, as well as horse effigies carved in bone or antler, contain clues that point to domestication of the horse by Magdalenian people. One of the major proponents of this interpretation is Paul Bahn. I have elsewhere expressed my great admiration for Paul Bahn for his imaginative approach to interpreting cave art, and his willingness to confront and argue against dogma. I am afraid, however, that in this instance I find myself in the position of arguing against Bahn. 

"15. Carving of a horse head from Saint-Michel d'Arudy, France, showing facial lines that indicate the line demarcating the mealy muzzle and the natural contours of the face. These lines have been interpreted by Bahn to represent a bridle. (Drawing courtesy of Randall White)" (Olsen 2003:5)

            "The strongest evidence presented for the control of horses at this early date consists of depictions of what Bahn (Paul) interprets as bridles on the heads of horses in wall engravings and effigies carved in stone or antler. These artistic renderings display lines encircling the nose and running from the nose back toward the ear (figure 15). At first glance these lines could be interpreted as part of a bridle, including the nose band, chin strap, and cheekpieces. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that these lines represent natural features on the heads of the Pleistocene horses. The wild Asiatic (Przewalski) horse, which is colored like many of the prehistoric depictions of the European Ice Age horses, has what is known as a mealy muzzle, or pale cream-colored ring around the end of the snout (figure 16). This is one of the characteristics of what is today called a Pangare' coat pattern on horses. Although there are no clear examples of a mealy muzzle in cave paintings, it is possible that some of the engravings with lines around the nose are meant to portray this change in coloration around the tip of the muzzle. The horizontal lines running from the nose back toward the neck probably represent natural contours or the horse's head. Curved lines are often incised to represent the contours of the large masseter muscle at the back of the lower jaw, and some lines indicate changes in fur patterns. Similar lines are seen on engravings of bison and other animals, although their positions are slightly different, but no one has suggested that bison were domesticated. (Olsen 2003:54)

Paleolithic baton de commandment. Public
domain photograph from the internet.

            "Bahn also believed that the Paleolithic batons de commandment were cheekpieces for a bridle. Although they bear a vague similarity to much-later Bronze Age antler cheekpieces, the batons are generally larger and heavier with only one very large perforation near one end. Bronze Age cheekpieces typically have two or three holes for the leather straps." (Olsen 2003:55)

            "Further, Bahn presented examples of damage on incisors (the anterior teeth) of Paleolithic horses that he hypothesized was caused by the nervous habit of crib-biting. This practice has been observed in horses that get bored with being penned and begin to chew on their stalls. If this behavior occurs only in situations where the animal is enclosed by a human-made structure, then surely horses were being controlled in the Paleolithic. R. A. Rogers and L. A. Rogers have shown, however, that similar damage appears on horse incisors dating to the early and middle Pleistocene of North America, long before the arrival of humans, Littauer pointed out that such wear could have just as easily been formed when the animals browse on the bark of trees." (Olsen 2003:55)

"16. A Przewalski horse showing the contours of the face and sharp color demarcation around the muzzle depicted in figure 15. (Photo by Sandra Olsen)" (Olsen 2003:5)

            "Some scholars, notably Paul Bahn, have suggested that horses were at least managed an perhaps domesticated 20,000 years ago by Ice Age hunter-gatherers who created the cave paintings, ornaments, and mobile art of the Upper Paleolithic (see chapter 3). This idea has been widely popularized by Jean Auel in her best-selling fiction books beginning with Clan of the Cave Bear. 
            Stocky, thick-legged, large-headed horses living throughout Europe during the Pleistocene Ice Ages were depicted magnificently in cave paintings and sculpted bone objects by Upper Palaeolithic artists, particularly in southwest France and northern Spain. Some of these depictions seem to show rope halters around horse heads (see chapter 3, figure 1). This interpretation is convincing at first. However, the shaggy winter coat of the modern Przewalski horse often sports a line of tufted hair running down the cheek and around the nose in exactly the positions marked by the "halter" lines in Paleolithic art. The "winter coat" interpretation of these lines is simpler and more likely than an interpretation based on bridling.
            Some Upper Paleolithic horse teeth exhibit odd wear that Bahn has suggested resembles the wear caused by crib-biting, a vice associated with stalled or penned horses. However, similar wear has been found on the teeth of Early Pleistocene equid fossils from America, animals that could not possibly have been domesticated because they predate the evolution of both modern humans and horses (see chapter 3). There has never been a controlled study that reliably identifies the diagnostic traits of cribbing wear on equid teeth so that it can be positively distinguished from natural wear or incidental damage to the incisors. The crib-biting suggestion remains untested and inherently unlikely. It would require not only domestication but long-term stalling of horses by Paleolithic hunters.
            On the whole there is little archaeological evidence even for herd management and no convincing support for domestication associated with the Ice Age horses of the European Upper Paleolithic." (Anthony 2003:69)

Wood chewing, or crib-biting, is behavior in which the horse gnaws on wood rails or boards as if they were food. This behavior eventually gives a distinctive wear pattern on the horse's teeth that a good veterinarian can identify in making his diagnosis. Wear patterns resembling this have been found on some teeth on Paleolithic (Ice Age) horse skeletons which has led some investigators to rash statements that this is proof of horse domestication that early. In other words, Cro-Magnon supposedly had built corrals and confined their domesticated horses there, where they performed crib biting. I think that nothing could be further from the truth.

Horses, both wild and domesticated, will chew wood on occasions. Where I live in the American West, if a horse corral contains a cottonwood tree it is almost invariable dead, the horses having girdled it by chewing the bark off. Inner bark is a nutritious food that they purposely seek out, especially when grazing conditions are poor. If drought has prevented normal grass growth for grazing, or if deep snow has covered the grass, horses will naturally turn to chewing the bark on trees. Indeed, ethnographic reports of Plains Indian tribes tell us that they sometimes kept their favorite horse tethered by their tipi in winter encampments which were usually in a heavily wooded area to provide some protection from cold winds. The owners of these horsed would gather branches of surrounding cottonwood trees to feed these horses which readily chewed off the bark and ate small twigs and branches. This bark was supposedly nutritious enough that the horses reportedly could put on weight on such a diet, even during harsh winter conditions. 

With reasonable explanations for the marks on the carvings and paintings that might resemble harnessing, and with a reasonable explanation for wood chewing by horses, I believe that the preponderance of evidence is against the proposed domestication of horses in the paleolithic period. Additionally, I can think of no way that evidence of crib-biting could be deduced from the paintings or carvings of the Paleolithic period. Therefore, with this analysis, I think that we can make an informed judgement on the question of domestication and, to me, all the evidence argues against it. 


Anthony, David W.,
2003    Bridling Horse Power, chapter 4, p. 58-82, in Horses Through Time, edited by Sandra L. Olsen, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder, for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Olsen, Sandra L.,
2003    Horse Hunters of the Ice Age, chapter 3, p. 35-56, in Horses Through Time, edited by Sandra L. Olsen, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder, for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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