Breath of Life

Part of the Horse exhibition.

cave painting
A display showing Pech Merle cave painting.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

This dramatic pair of horses was painted in Pech Merle Cave, in southern France, at least 16,000 years ago. Modern research suggests Ice Age artists formed these ghostly images by taking pigment in their mouths and blowing it out through a bone tube. The black spots may have little to do with the horses' coats, since they extend beyond the figures themselves.

Cave art is often found in deep recesses that are difficult to reach and impractical for use as everyday shelters. These areas may have been reserved instead for religious ceremonies, rites of passage, or the spiritual practices of a select few. Some researchers believe Ice Age people thought of underground caves as paths to a spirit world, and images on cave walls as spirit helpers--animals with a link to the beyond.

Etched in Stone

Horses appear often in European cave art--perhaps more often than any other animal. A lively engraving was discovered in 2000 in Cussac Cave, in southwestern France. The remains of at least five people were found on the floor of the same cave and have been dated to around 25,000 years ago.