Hunting Horses

Dance of the Cave Horse: a Przewalski at the West Berlin Zoo

Geoff Nicholson sent me a snippet from an interview with German director Werner Herzog on his new 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the film, Herzog explores the Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche, a fine-drawn menagerie that includes horses, rhinos, big cats and mammoths. Yesterday in the library I was poring over photographs of the equines, trying to work out if they were  Equus ferus przewalskii or Equus ferus ferus – Tarpans, the much-disputed “other” wild horse of prehistory,  usually associated with the Western Steppes and Central or Eastern European forests. I think they were the former. Rats. I need to see some paleolithic Tarpans.

Stone Age humans ate a lot of horses, as we know from Solutré, where a vast collection of horse bones were found; for a long time it was believed that the hunters had driven the horses off a cliff and collected the smashed remains, but now the theory is that migrating animals were instead herded into a natural “corral” and picked off. Herzog has obviously been reading up:

“I would hunt a horse,” said Herzog, in a recent interview with The Plain Dealer. “A deer zigzags, but a horse runs straight, so with two or three men you could chase him into a ravine or into a deep hole that you’d cover up so he’d fall in.”

Does he know that’s exactly what happened to the last free-running  Tarpan? Specimen hunters accidentally chased the poor mare off a cliff and into a ravine in the late nineteenth century. Previously Equus ferus ferus had been the game animal of game animals in the Polish forest of Bialowieski. In the twentieth century the Poles “reconstituted” a kind of Tarpan from domestic horses bred near or in the forest who had Tarpan traits and ancestors: a breed now called the Konik:

Up close and personal with Marek, one of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Konik stallions

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