Discovering extinct bison hybrid through Palaeolithic cave paintings and DNA analysis

DNA analysis of of 50000-year-old European bison (wisent) remains from a cave in France revealed that it originated from a previously unknown hybrid species of wisent which was depicted through Upper Palaeolithic rock art 15000 years ago.

Steppe bison drawing in Chauvet-Pont d'Arc cave (by Popular Archaeology)
Steppe bison drawing in Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave (by Popular Archaeology)

The hybrid species emerged over 120,000 years ago through the hybridisation of the extinct Aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle, and the Ice Age Steppe Bison. This hybrid species eventually became the ancestor of the modern wisent, as seen present at Białowieża forest on the border of Poland and Belarus. This course of events was discovered by scientists of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide.

Left metacarpal of a bison from l'Aven de l'Arquet belonging to the extinct wisent (by Popular Archaeology)
Left metacarpal of a bison from l’Aven de l’Arquet belonging to the extinct wisent (by Popular Archaeology)

The experts studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Europe, the Ural and the Caucasus Mountains to trace the genetic history of the populations. What was discovered, was genetically  different from the European bison or any other known species. So far the Steppe bison has been considered the only bison species present in Late Ice Age Europe.

Wisent painting in the Marsoulas cave (by Popular Archaeology)
Wisent painting in the Marsoulas cave (by Popular Archaeology)

The researchers confronted French archaeologists who confirmed that there are two distinct forms of bison art in Ice Age caves, and it turned out their ages match those of the different species. The cave paintings depict bison with either long horns and large forequarters or with shorter horns and small humps, more similar to modern European bison.

(after PhysOrg & Popular Archaeology)

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