The 6,000-8,000-year-old cave paintings at the Wadi Sura II site in Egypt have been a source of interest since they were discovered in 2002. Although there are thousands of paintings that include a variety of images, a special interest has been given to the tiny “handprints” that were once thought to have been made by infants.
National Geographic reports that the images found in the cave include wild animals, human figures, and odd headless creatures, “but also hundreds of outlines of human handprints — more than had ever been seen before at a Saharan rock art site.” The mix of images have led people to nickname the site the “Cave of the Beasts.”
The name could be even more accurate if the anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research is correct about her hypothesis – that the tiny “handprints” were actually made by reptiles.
The walls of Wadi Sura II are covered with hundreds of hand stencils, images of people, wild animals and strange headless beasts. ( Emmanuelle Honoré )
According to News.com.au, there are at least 13 of the tiny prints found at the site. National Geographic provides more information on the style and location of the images, saying that the tiny prints:
“in Wadi Sura II appear not only stenciled inside the outlines of human hands but also in friezes, a patterning also seen with human hands. All were stenciled around the same time with the same pigment. It’s impossible to say, however, whether the foot of a live creature was pressed against the wall of the rock shelter for stenciling or whether the artist(s) opted for the convenience and safety of a freshly severed limb.”
Honoré told National Geographic that she was “shocked by the shape of the unusually small hand outlines” when she first saw them in 2006. Thus, she took measurements of the prints and first compared them to the hands of her younger relatives.
Then Honoré recruited a team, including medical researchers, to collect infant samples from the neonatal unit of a French hospital. “If I went to a hospital and just said, ‘I’m studying rock art. Are there babies available?’ they’d think I’m crazy and call security on me,” she joked to National Geographic.
The samples obtained from the hospital were of newborn human infants under a year of age, and newborn premature babies that were 26 to 36 weeks old.
It did not take long for Honoré to discover that the “handprints” were tiny and did not fit with the images of the hands of the little humans. “They were much smaller than human baby hands, and the fingers were too long,” she said.
The results of Honoré’s study are published in the April 2016 Journal of Archeological Science and show that it is very unlikely that the prints were made of human hands. The report in the journal says:
“The rock art small hands differ significantly in size, proportions and morphology from human hands. Potential biases between the different samples were quantified, but their average range cannot explain the observed differences. Evidence suggest that the hand stencils belong to an animal, most probably a reptile. The identification of non-human pentadactyl hand stencils is unique in the field of rock art and raises new perspectives for understanding the rock art at Wadi Sūra, and the behaviour and symbolic universe of the populations who made it.”
The reptile conclusion was not the first one for Honoré. She told News.com.au that primates were the next in line for analysis after the babies’ handprints were compared to the rock art. But that too proved less-than convincing for the anthropologist. “After many discussions with my colleagues of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, especially Professor Brigitte Senut, a great primatologist and palaeoanthropologist, we decided to investigate the reptile hypothesis” she told the news agent.
She said that after she consulted “with several zoos and reptile experts her research showed the proportions were more closely aligned to the legs of desert monitor lizards, or the feet of young crocodiles.” The anthropologist told News.com.au. “We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer, but our first results are also very convincing.”
Image of tiny “handsprints”, which may have been made by reptiles, inside adult human handprints at the Wadi Sura II rock shelter. ( Emmanuelle Honoré )
As for the reasoning why the reptiles’ imprints were chosen, Honoré is reluctant to say :
“We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from. But in this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world. It’s very challenging for us as researchers to interpret these paintings since we have a culture that’s totally different [from the one that created it].”
Featured image: A tiny hand, originally assumed to be of a very young child or infant was stenciled inside the outline of an adult hand on the wall of the Wadi Sura II rock shelter about 8,000 years ago. New research suggests that the prints were actually made by reptiles. Source: Emmanuelle Honoré