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12,000-Year-Old 'Headless' Horse Engraving Discovered in France

Paleolithic horses
Illustrations highlighting the 12,00-year-old engravings of the horses and other herbivores. (Image credit: Denis Gliksman/Inrap)

Archaeologists have discovered 12,000-year-old engravings of a horse and four other animals etched by Stone Age artists into sandstone in what is now southwestern France.

Geometric decorations surround the animals on the sandstone engraving, a telltale sign that whoever made them was part of the Azilian industry, a tool tradition in Europe that thrived during the late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic, during which small stone tools were fit into handles made of bone or antler. (The Paleolithic is also known as the Old Stone Age, while the Mesolithic is the Middle Stone Age.)

The sandstone slab is now broken, so the horse — which covers about half of the stone block — is headless. The horse's four legs and three hooves "are very realistic," the National Archaeological Research Institute (Inrap) said in a translated statement. [Photos: Ancient Rock Art of Southern Africa]

Alongside the headless horse are two, slightly smaller engravings of animals — likely a species of deer and another horse. The outline of an aurochs, an extinct species of wild cattle, is also visible. On the other side of the stone slab are fine lines delineating a horse rump.

A sandstone that was engraved with images of horses and other animals about 12,000 years ago. (Image credit: Denis Gliksman/Inrap)

Archaeologists found the hefty slab — which is 10 inches tall and 7 inches wide (25 by 18 centimeters) — during excavations near the Angoulême train station, north of Bordeaux. This site was once used by prehistoric Azilian hunters, according to previous discoveries of ancient equipment, such as stone scrapers, found there that would have helped Paleolithic people prepare and eat meat.

Earlier digs have also revealed fireplaces, piles of pebbles that could have been heated for cooking purposes and animal bones. Moreover, archaeologists have unearthed arrowheads and cut flints from this site, Inrap said.

The newly discovered animal engravings will be presented to the public at a local exhibit on June 15.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

As an editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel edits and writes pieces on general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.