For decades, it has been assumed that hand prints made around 8,000 years ago on the walls of an Egyptian rock shelter represented human hands, but new research finds that they actually belonged to one or more reptiles.

The discovery, which will be reported in the April issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, adds the rock shelter — called Wadi Sūra II — to the very short list of places containing animal stencils made with actual animals.

"Animal hand or foot stencils are not as common as human ones in the rock art record," wrote Emmanuelle Honoré and colleagues. "Emu foot stencils are evidenced in the Carnavon Gorge and the Tent Shelter in Australia, choike/nandu (birds of the genus Rhea) stencils in the rock art of La Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, bird stencils in Arnhem Land in Australia, among others."

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“All these animal stencils are made with tridactyl (three-toed) feet,” continued Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and her team. “As such, as far as we know, the Wadi Sūra II shelter would represent the first record ever identified of non-human pentadactyl (five toed or fingered) hand stencils in the world of rock art.”

The researchers launched their investigation after noticing that the hands were not as human resembling as previously thought. Yes, they have five digits, but from there, the similarities end. The hand stencils are very small, for example, such that even earlier teams concluded that human babies must have made them.

Honoré and colleagues took detailed measurements of each hand stencil on the walls of the rock shelter, located in the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert. They did a comparative study, looking at human newborn hands and even those of pre-term babies. They still couldn’t make a match.

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Next, they looked at the hands of other animals that also have five digits. These included a 4-year-old crocodile from the zoological garden at the University of Tel Aviv and adult monitor lizards from the wild as well as the Zoo of Moscow. The reptiles surprisingly proved to be a better match. You can see what one looks like here.

As for how the stencils were made, the researchers believe that they were crafted “by placing a hand or animal foot on the surface rock, and then blowing a pigment onto the substrate to create an outline or a negative image of the hand or foot.”

Given the scientists’ conclusion that the hands were reptilian and not human, many of the images in the rock shelter take on new complex meanings. For example, one wall features stencils of actual human hands with the tiny reptile hands on top of them, as though they are being held by the person.

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This arrangement would “seem to indicate a close — if not fusional — connection between animals and human(s),” according to the authors.

They concluded, “Our identification of the use of an animal — most probably a reptile — hand or forefoot as a stencil in the rock art of Wadi Sūra is a significant discovery that sheds a new light on the symbolic universe of the Early Holocene populations from the Eastern Sahara.”