On March 20th, 2016 we learned about

Casting doubt on kids’ role as cave painting collaborators

While many ancient cave paintings depict strikingly recognizable humans and animals, some still trip us up. Perhaps revealing a bit of cognitive bias, an 8,000 year old cave painting in the Saharan desert included what was assumed to be human hands, both young and old. It was only upon further analysis that the tiny “baby” hands, tenderly located within the palm area of some adult hands, aren’t from babies at all, or at least, not human babies. Instead, it’s likely that these adults were paired with desert monitor lizards (Varanus griseus), shaking up how to interpret the overall composition.

Dubious digits

Anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré actually noticed the non-baby hands upon her first visit to the cave. They seemed too small, with strangely long fingers. What’s more, while some images on the cave wall were rendered by the artist’s imagination, the hands were the result of stenciling, where somebody’s hand was held up on the wall while darker pigments were applied. The long fingers didn’t come from stylization, they came from some very specific anatomy. However, since stenciling with animals wasn’t known in this part of the world (compared to practices in Australia or South America,) Honoré had to prove that these weren’t babies as others had assumed.

She started with measurements of her nieces, and then moved to a French hospital to ask parents for measurements of their children’s hands. Many parents were happy to pitch in, and the accumulated data showed that human infants have very different proportions than those depicted on the wall. Instead of long fingers, baby fingers are usually around the same length as their palms. With this established, the search for a better-matching hand model commenced.

Reasons for the reptiles

At this point, the best bet is the monitor lizards, although a second phase of comparisons is under way to check on young crocodile feet. Aside from being consistent shape, monitor lizards have symbolic value as protectors by modern nomadic tribes. It doesn’t explain the image entirely, but it does seem like a thread to start explaining the stencils. It also begs the question of if the lizard hands, where were also used in a pattern alongside human hands in a sort of frieze, were live contributors, or simply body parts used as painting tools. If it was the latter, it seems that the ancient artists agreed with W.C. Fields about avoiding working with children or animals.

Source: 'Baby Hands' in Cave Paintings May Actually Belong to Lizards by Kristin Romey, National Geographic

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