biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow horse painting

Who Depicted Walking Horses More Accurately: prehistoric or modern artists ?

I’m not at all a great rider and have tried to avoid sitting in the saddle as much as possible. Why? because I’m a little scared of horses for I was once bitten in the face by a horse when I was a child (yes “bitten”, not kicked: horses can and do bite sometimes). However, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate paintings or photographs of horses and in fact, both of my daughters in Finland were members of a riding club.

When I worked at the Laboratoire Souterrain in Moulis in southwestern France, I had several opportunities to visit caves that 15,000 years ago had been used by our ancestors, the Magdalenians (Cro-Magnon people), for shelter, gatherings and for making paintings. The walls, for example of the Niaux cave that I visited three times, features herds of mammoths, many other animals long extinct in Europe since then, and horses, lots of horses. These horses painted on the cave’s walls with charcoal were so beautifully and realistically depicted that one could not only help to marvel at the skills of the stone-age artists but also had to admire their knowledge of the wild horses and their behavioural repertoire as well. However, did the artists really know something about the different gates of horses?

A horse, after all, does not just gallop all the time. One distinguishes walking, a kind of 4 beat rhythm in which each foot of a horse is put down on the ground one at a time in a particular sequence. And then there is trotting in which a front foot and the opposite hind foot are on the ground at the same time; there is also pacing in which two legs on the same side of the horse move forward together (as seen in camels, too). Cantering (also known as loping) is a gate in which first one hindfoot (quickly followed by the other as well as one of the horse’s forelegs) is put on the ground, creating a 3-beat rhythm. The gallop is characterized by short phases in which all four feet are off the ground and walking and galloping are probably gates the Cro-Magnon Magdalenian hunters observed most frequently. Stotting (or pronking), a sudden jump into the air with all four legs off the ground, is not common in horses, but a typical reaction of gazelles, springboks and sometimes lambs, too.

The scientific or better biological accuracy with which the stone age cave artists depicted their horses’ feet were compared by the Hungarian researchers Horvath et al (2012) with that seen in works by modern artists’ representations of walking horses. The results should make the modern artists feel ashamed because the error rate in illustrations of 686 walking horses created after 1887 by modern artists was an amazing 57.9%. Compared with the figure of 46.2% of erroneous depictions on 39 paintings by stone age painters, statistically analysed for significance by the authors, the result clearly shows that the horse drawing or paintings by artists from 15,000 years ago were more accurately copying a horse’s feet positions than what the modern painters did. For cavalry statues, the error figures were even greater when compared with the stone age artists’ oeuvres. Obviously, the cavemen (or were women maybe also producing cave paintings?) were more keenly aware of the distinct foot positions of a horse in motion and illustrated quadrupedal walking more accurately than later artists.

However, it is likely that modern artists were less interested in precisely copying how a horse moved than in showing the rider and his or her outfit. That, after all, seemed to have been the reason for such painting in the first place. When vanity is part of something, objectivity takes second place and is likely to suffer. And that seems to have been part of the explanation for the lower scientific accuracy of the modern artists. Or has it perhaps been the artists’ lack of a good teacher in zoology?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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