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Zebra-Like Beasts Were Living Near Cave With Denisovans In Siberia

The cave was home to Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo sapiens, and... some unlucky zebra-like horses.


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

The Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, Russia.

The Denisova Cave has been full of surprises since it was excavated in the 1970s.

Image credit: Olinchuk/

Genetic evidence suggests that an extinct zebra-like horse was once in the Denisova Cave, a cavern in the Altai mountains of Siberia where three species of human are known to have lived: Denisovans, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens (that's us)This begs the question: what were extinct humans’ relationships with this strange beast and were they responsible for its extinction?

A few years ago, scientists from the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science looked for evidence of ancient horses in the Denisova Cave, which hosts the remains of dozens of animal species that were likely hunted and eaten by its human inhabitants.


Their study, published in 2017, managed to sequence the complete mitochondrial genome of the species, known as Equus ovodovi, for the first time. 

The genetic data suggested that E. ovodovi was more closely related to other equine species, like donkeys. Judging by the number of other remains in the cave, it’s assumed that the extinct horses did not live in the cave alongside humans, but were hunted by them and brought here. 

“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 Nikolai Ovodov, a renowned Russian archaeologist who helped identify the species, told The Siberian Times in 2017. 

Besides anything, the extinct horse would not be too fun to ride. Unlike the strong and slender racing horses of today, Dr Ovodov explained that it most likely had a short and stocky build, a bit like the ever-adorable Przewalski's horse.


Much of the extinct animal's appearance remains a mystery, however. There is no full skeleton of the horse nor any rock art depictions on the walls. The best hope is that a preserved specimen could be found frozen in permafrost, but that’s a long shot. 

The dating of the zebra-like horse was especially surprising to the researchers. E. ovodovi was the last surviving animal in the subgenus Sussemionus, the rest of which went extinct around 400,000 years ago. In the Denisova Cave, however, the sample dates to around 32,000 years old, suggesting this sole species managed to survive much later in the Siberian mountains than its relatives. 

By around 32,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were likely extinct, at least in this part of the world. However, since Denisovans had occupied the cave for at least 200,000 years at this point, it’s very possible they were the ones hunting E. ovodovi.

In 2022, another team of scientists put forward evidence that E. ovodovi might have been living in modern-day China as late as 3,500 years ago, suggesting that the species survived even after humans had widely occupied this corner of eastern Eurasia. 


Nevertheless, the researchers from the 2017 study doubted whether hunting humans were to blame for the species’ demise in Siberia. Instead, they pointed to local climate change, which spelled doom for many other Siberian animals in the region around this time. 


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