An iconic pair of white horses with black spots drawn on the walls of a cave about 25,000 years ago were not an abstract representation of equine life but an accurate depiction of reality, a study suggests.

Scholars have long argued over the dappled horses of Pech-Merle in southern France, with many saying their spotted hides must represent something other than what the prehistoric artists were seeing, because white horses with dark spots did not exist.

However, a study into the DNA of several wild varieties of prehistoric horses has found that dappled coats, known as leopard spotting in modern equine breeds, did indeed exist long before horses became domesticated about 7,000 years ago.

Professor Terry O'Connor, an archaeologist at the University of York, said: "Our research removes the need for any symbolic explanation of the horses. People drew what they saw and that gives us greater confidence in understanding Palaeolithic depictions of other species as naturalistic illustrations."