8,000-Year-Old ‘Hand Prints’ Were Made by Lizards, Not People: Scientists

May 7, 2019 Updated: May 7, 2019

Tiny handprints that date back some 8,000 years were actually made by lizards, scientists said.

The site of Wadi Sura II was discovered in Egypt’s Western Desert back in 2002. At the time, researchers were stunned to find thousands of decorations on the walls of the rock shelter—some of which dated back thousands of years.

Along with designs showing wild animals, human figures, and headless creatures, researchers also found the outlines of numerous human handprints—which had never been seen before at a Saharan rock site.

But anthropologists recently revealed that the handprints were not made by small humans.

Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, one of the anthropologists, told National Geographic she was initially “shocked” by the shape of the small hand outlines when she first saw them.

“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,” the website reported.

“They were much smaller than human baby hands, and the fingers were too long,” she explained.

She compared measurements from the hands of newborn human infants, as well as newborn premature babies—and the results, which were published earlier this year in the Journal of Archaeological Science., show there’s an extremely low probability that the “baby” hands in the so-called Cave of the Beasts are actually human.

Honoré then measured for monkey paws, but found those off as well. So she turned to lizards, and found that the prints were likely made from the forelegs of desert monitor lizards, or the feet of young crocodiles.

“We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer, but our first results are also very convincing,” she told news.com.au of the latest research.

But she’s hesitant to analyze the meaning too much.

“We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from,” she says. “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].”

In any case, the site itself is still very important.

“Wadi Sura II can be considered as the most important rock art site in all North Africa, because of the huge number of paintings,” she said. “The shelter is located in a very remote area and was only discovered recently.”

The results of Honore’s study were published in the Journal of Archeological Science, noting the origin of the “handprints.”

“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,” it says.