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Remains of extinct 'zebra-like horse' found at Denisova cave, home of ancient man

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15 February 2017


Denisova Cave in Altai region was home to three species of ancient man, Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Picture: The Siberian Times

The find confirms that the squat and little-known Ovodov Horse, remains of which have been found at several Siberian locations, was alive as recently as 24,000 years ago.

Denisova Cave in Altai region was home to three species of ancient man, Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans. 

The relic horse was scientifically described in 2009 by renowned Russian archeologist Dr Nikolai Ovodov based on remains found in Khakassia, but, perhaps strangely, it is not an animal recorded in cave drawings.

The question also arises of whether ancient man was responsible for the demise of a breed that was evidently once common in southern Siberia. 

Horse's bone

Horse's bone

The bone of Ovodov horse, found in Denisova cave. Pictures: Sergey Vasilyev

Geneticist Anna Druzhkova said DNA evidence suggested it was 'nominally' a horse, but 'if you imagine, it is more of a cross between a donkey and a zebra, short-legged, small and not as slender as ordinary horses'.

She added: 'I don't mean that the horse had any stripes. But it was not some tall, graceful horse. It was a small horse, the size of an ass or zebra'.

Dr Ovodov, who originally identified the distinct species, told The Siberian Times that he believes the now-vanished equine was 'quite common' around Altai caves inhabited by ancient man, such as Denisova and Strashnaya.

'This was rather small but sturdily built horse,' he said. 'I can say that it looked similar to the modern-day Przewalski's horse. It was larger than a donkey or zebra, he said. 


'If you imagine it, it is more of a cross between a donkey and a zebra, short-legged, small and not as slender as ordinary horses.' Picture: The Siberian Times

'If we imagine ourselves in Denisova cave, these horses, of course, did not live inside it, but in the valley of Anyui River. They ate grass, not bushes. So they grazed on the banks of Anyui River and hunters could see from their viewing point that a herd was approaching and successfully hunted the horses.'

Dr Vladimir Trifonov, head of the laboratory of the comparative genomics, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of Siberian Branch Russian Academy of Sciences, said: 'The find proves that there were a lot more species than now in Altai.

'Fauna was represented by such exotic species too. We can't rule out that Denisovan man and other inhabitants of ancient Altai were hunting the Ovodov horse.' 

Nikolay Ovodov

Dr Nikolai Ovodov. Picture: ez.chita.ru

Dr Sergey Vasilyev, senior researcher in the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Brach of Russian Academy of Sciences, said the horse in all probability had a 'discreet colouring, similar to Przhewalski's horse, so it could blend in with the landscape'.

'It is quite hard to give an exact description of the appearance of this horse,' he said. 'If we could find its carcass somewhere frozen in permafrost, it would be easy, but we realise that it is impossible, as these horses did not live so far to the north.

'Also there are no rock images left by ancient artists and we do not even have a full skeleton of this horse, which would help considerably to restore its appearance.

Przewalski's horse

Przewalski's horse

Ovodov horse had a 'discreet colouring, similar to Przhewalski's horse, so it could blend in with the landscape'. Pictures: RGO, Sci-Nature

'The remains of this horse are found in caves. They were brought there by hyenas or left by people, and the bones that exist are usually damaged... We believe that people ate them too, these horses were among the abundant species. There were a lot of such horses, it was not very hard to hunt them.'

He doubts that man hunted the Ovodov horse to extinction, believing instead that climate changes probably led to its extinction. But the horse was anyway living out of its era tens of thousands of years ago in Altai. 

'Most of the remains of horses which we find in Siberian caves belong to two groups - caballine (closer to modern horses) and slender, more akin to the extinct European ass or existing Asiatic wild ass (onager). 

Vladimir Trifonov

Dr Vladimir Trifonov working in his lab. Picture: Vladimir Trifonov

'The Ovodov horse stands between these two groups. Its appearance could be somewhere between the Przewalski's horse and the onager. It was more massive than the onager, which typically weighs about 200 kilograms. The Ovodov horse could weight about 300 kg and be about 143 -145 centimetres in withers.

'The most interesting thing about this horse is that it belongs to the subgenus Sussemionus. But scientists had believed that the representatives of Sussemionus lived between 1 million and 500,000 years ago: that is, that  they became extinct about 400,000 years ago. 

'Yet the Ovodov horse managed to survive until 24,000 - 26,000 years in the Altai mountains. This is really surprising.' 

French scientist Vera Eisenmann from Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris) was also closely involved in identifying the Ovodov horse.

Denisovan bone

A finger bone fragment of 'X woman'. Picture: Max Planck Institute

Human ancestors lived in Denisova cave as far back as 282,000 years ago, say scientists.

In 2008 that Siberian scientists discovered a finger bone fragment of 'X woman',  a juvenile female believed to have lived around 41,000 years ago. Analysis showed she was genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans.

In 2010 analysis on an upper molar from a young adult, found in the cave ten years previously, was also from a Denisovan. 

Journal Science has reported that analysis on the Denisovan finger bone and molars, as well as cave material, shows these little-known ancient people 'occupied the cave surprisingly early and came back repeatedly'. 

The young female 'lived at least 50,000 years ago and that two other Denisovan individuals died in the cave at least 110,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 170,000 years ago'.

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