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The mystery of the “hands of the Sahara”.



Small footprints painted in an Egyptian cave may belong to lizards instead to newborns, says a new study.

A detail of the footprints of “little hands” that appear within larger human hands on the walls of the site Wadi Sura II. When, in 2002, was discovered on site Wadi Sura II, in the Egyptian Western Desert, the researchers were astounded by the thousands of murals left on the walls of the rock shelter at least 8,000 years ago.

Not only appeared wild animals, human figures and strange creatures without a head, so that the site was dubbed the “Cave of the Beasts”; there were also hundreds of imprints of human hands, more than have ever been found in a rock art site in the Sahara. Even more unusual were 13 small footprints of what looked like very small children’s hands. Decorations like that had been discovered in Australian sites, but never in the Sahara. In one case (see photo above) the two “hands” seem like huddled in the hands of an adult. Yet, apparently, it is not human hands. Wadi Sura II is considered one of the most important rock art sites of the Sahara, although it is not as famous as the nearby Wadi Sura I, discovered in 1933 by Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy and then made famous by the film The English Patient.

Anthropologists have visited for the first time in 2003, being very surprised by the footprints of the “little hands”. “They are much smaller than the hands of infants, and the fingers were unusually long,” he says.

According to the results, just published, the probability that the “hands” of the Cave of the Beasts are truly human is extremely low. But then what are they? The footprints of the position and shape of the fingers varies from point to point of the cave; scholars have deduced that to leave must have been something flexible and complex and not an inert object like wood or clay, whose outlines have been traced by unknown artists of the cave. Earlier archaeologists have thought of monkey paws, but even then the proportions do not add up. So his colleagues from the Natural History Museum in Paris advised him to consider the reptiles. 

   So far the most likely candidate, size and shape of the legs, is the desert monitor lizard (Varanus griseus), a sorrel (or lizard) that still live in the area and is considered sacred by nomadic peoples. An alternative could be the legs of baby crocodiles, but it is a hypothesis subject of an ongoing study.

The news that the “hands” of Wadi Sura are not human is a big surprise for rock art experts of the Sahara. Animal figures obtained with the stencil technique can often be found in Australia and South America, but not here. The small legs appear not only inside human hands but also in form of frieze, as well as the other images of hands. All fingerprints were modeled in the same period, but it is impossible to say whether the artist used the paw of a live lizard or preferred to cut it and tracing over at leisure. As for the meaning of the footprints, it prefers not to make too many assumptions. We moderns tend to see humans as separate from the rest of nature. But in this huge collection of images of the man it is in effect a larger natural world. For us researchers it is difficult to interpret these paintings, because our culture is so different. Meanwhile, parents of newborns “measured” for research can not wait to read the results. They were really excited about the idea that their children could make a contribution to science.

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To open the video click on the image, good view from your Alessandro Brizzi.