Reconstructing the past isn’t easy, and it is even more challenging for events that date back millennia. This search for evidence can take researchers to strange places—and for anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré and her colleagues, that meant measuring baby hands in a hospital.
Though the methods are slightly unusual, the researchers uncovered something curious: The tiny Stone Age handprints stenciled inside an Egyptian cave were likely not from small humans, but rather lizards, Kristin Romey reports for National Geographic.
Honoré and her team, who recently published their results in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, analyzed small handprints at Wadi Sūra II, a rock shelter in the Western Desert of Egypt. Discovered in 2002, the shelter is also known as “the cave of the beasts” after the menagerie of creatures depicted on its walls.
The sandstone cave is filled with mysterious paintings and markings that seem to pre-date animal domestication, including lots of outlines of human hands that are at least 6,000 years old. Among these handprints, 13 appear to be left by very small humans. These were the first such stenciled hands found in the Sahara.
But when Honoré looked at the paintings, she began to doubt that the handprints were tracings of Stone Age babies. So she teamed up with researchers to get measurements of newborns and pre-term babies at the neonatal unit of a French hospital. This comparison showed that indeed, the cave prints were not human.
Honoré then moved to other candidates, from monkeys to lizards. Ultimately, the lizards won.
“The most compelling comparisons are found among reptiles,” writes Honoré. Likely candidates include young crocodiles or desert monitor lizards—an animal that is well-represented in other Saharan rock art.
But the case isn't closed just yet. “We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer,” Honoré told News.com.au’s Debra Killalea, “but our first results are very convincing.”
The team speculates that the paintings may have included the prints of important religious or cultural symbols like the lizards. But Honoré doesn't want to speculate too much on the meaning, reports Romey.
"We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from," she tells Romey. "But in this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world."
Researchers may never know exactly what made the prints, but identifying them as reptile gives the cave of the beasts new meaning—and fresh intrigue.