A mysterious cave on the border between Egypt and Libya just got a little more mysterious when anthropologists studying the small handprints on the walls determined they’re not from humans but from reptiles. Even more strange, the figures drawn on the wall beside the prints show both humans and what look like human-animal beings. What was going on in Egypt 8,000 years ago?
The Cave of Beasts or Wadi Sura II cave was discovered in 2002 in the Eastern Sahara and captured the interest of archaeologists and others immediately when the walls were revealed to be covered with images of people, animals and headless creatures as well as 13 different groups of tiny stenciled handprints that were assumed to have been made by small children.
Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research wondered exactly how old the children who made the handprints might be so she took pictures and precise measurements of them and brought to her lab for analysis. What she found jumps out of the headline of her new report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: “… non-human stencil hands at Wadi Sūra II.”
The pigments are the same so it looks like the 13 sets were done at about the same time. Honoré says the prints are smaller than those of a newborn human baby and the digits are too long to be fingers. The shape also ruled out primates. Eventually, her comparisons to other prints led her to the conclusion that they’re from monitor lizards or crocodiles.
Now that we’ve settled what they are, WHY would anyone hold an alligator up to a wall and stencil its feet? Did they cut the feet off first? And what about those human-reptile figures on the nearby walls?
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].
That doesn’t help, Dr. Honoré. The non-human creatures on the walls are positioned among humans and have some human characteristics, like legs. Some also appear to be eating or regurgitating humans. Are they symbols? Shape-shifters? Aliens?
When it comes to Egypt, they could be anything.