When archaeologists stumbled upon a rock shelter in the Egyptian Sahara in 2002, they found something remarkable: thousands of decorations painted on the walls 8,000 years ago.
They saw wild animals, humans, and headless figures and ended up naming the cave, located in the Western Desert in Egypt, the Cave of Beasts, National Geographic reported.
Not only were they astonished by the rock art, they were also stumped by 13 very different decorations — tiny hand prints that were so little people soon believed that they came from a baby.
The site’s formal name is Wadi Sura II, the less famous sister to Wadi Sura I, also called the Cave of Swimmers. Discovered in 1933 by Hungarian count Láslo Almásy, it was featured in the film The English Patient.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Cave of Beasts became known for being decorated with the baby hand prints.
Hand prints in Egypt’s Cave of Beasts 'weren’t made by humans' https://t.co/k1OCESTmzV— Mr. D'Ambrosio (@eteaching101) March 1, 2016
That sounds bizarre, but it’s not exactly uncalled for the ancient world. Australian rock art features the stenciled hands and feet of very small children, including the poignant display of tiny hand prints nestled inside adult ones. But anthropologists had never seen baby handprints decorating a cave in the Sahara.
Researcher Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research wasn’t convinced the handprints came from a baby. She first saw the cave in 2006 and was shocked by the tiny hand prints all over the cave.
“They were much smaller than human baby hands, and the fingers were too long.”
The handprints and the positioning of the fingers also hinted that they were flexible and articulated, which meant that they weren’t made from a wood or clay stencil.
A few years later, Honoré returned to the site and started to test her theory — that the prints didn’t belong to children, babies, or premature newborns, she told ABC News.
She started by measuring her own children’s hands and the hands of babies in her family. The measurements seemed to prove her point. She next turned to a neonatal unit at a French hospital to enlist their help in measuring the hands of more little babies for comparison.
“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.
Tiny prints in Stone Age shelter were NOT human:8,000-year-old ‘baby’ stencils in Cave of Beasts created by lizards!https://t.co/TkduUaRovk— †De Haydock† (@sallyjacobs) February 29, 2016
She had measurements taken from newborns (37 to 41 weeks gestational age) and preemies (26 to 36 weeks gestational age). Based on that data, she concluded that it was extremely unlikely that the hand prints at the Cave of Beasts belonged to a baby.
For a while, she entertained the idea that primates could be responsible, but she later rejected that idea, too. She then consulted with zoos and reptile experts and narrowed it down to desert monitor lizards or the feet of young crocodiles. Monitor lizards still live in this region of Egypt; nomadic creatures view them as protective creatures.
All of the hand prints were stenciled with the same pigment and probably at the same time. Honoré can’t tell, however, if they were made from a live animal or one of its severed limbs.
She provided no speculation as to why these ancient people would’ve decorated a cave in this way, since archaeologists know very little about the societies that used to live in this part of Egypt.
“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,” she said. “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].”
The parents whose babies had their hands measured for science are very interested about what Honoré discovered, she said.
“They were really enthusiastic about the idea that their newborns could make such a contribution to science.”
[Image via rafik beshay/Shutterstock]