A few years ago, researchers stumbled upon an unexpected find in central Iran: a strangely shaped glyph with a spindly body sporting six limbs, a triangular head and two bulging eyes. Described as half human, half praying mantis, the curious figure, described in a paper recently published in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, still largely eludes explanation. But it may represent an insect-themed variant of the so-called “squatting man,” a circle-heavy motif that adorns ancient rock faces found worldwide, reports Daisy Hernandez for Popular Mechanics.
First spotted during a series of surveys conducted between 2017 and 2018, the five-and-a-half-inch-long rock carving initially befuddled researchers. Eventually, however, it caught the attention of a team of entomologists and archaeologists who set out to give the glyph a proper story.
Careful inspection led the entomologists to conclude that the carving likely depicted the head and grasping forelimbs of a praying mantis belonging to the genus Empusa, which is native to the region. Described as “raised and opened,” these buggy legs may have been splayed out to the glyph’s sides to suggest a threatening stance—hinting, perhaps, that its creators had reason to admire or even fear the predatory insects, according to Popular Mechanics.
But the rest of the glyph’s anatomy was more mysterious, reports Hannah Osborne for Newsweek. Capping the figure’s middle limbs were a pair of closed loops that reminded the researchers of a well-known glyph called the squatting man. Featuring a human-like figure flanked by small circles, the unusually ubiquitous figure—scratched into rock faces across several continents—is so bizarre that one researcher has proposed that the circles represent an extreme aurora that may have streaked across the skies worldwide thousands of years ago.
Unfortunately, not much more can be said of the odd hybrid. Sanctions in Iran prevent researchers from radiocarbon dating the find, which, based on the site where it was found, can only be dated between the massive range of 4,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Until more analysis can be completed, the team has dubbed the glyph the “squatting (squatter) mantis man.” If it does indeed depict a figure that blends insect and human, the carving would be especially unusual, even among the many animal-themed drawings that speckle the mountainous regions of Iran, according to a Pensoft Publishers blog.
As the authors write in their study, the praying mantis has long held a special place in human lore, featuring even in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where they served as deities that led souls into the underworld. Scratched into rock thousands of years ago, the bug might have held a different meaning, which—for now—remains just as mysterious as its creators.