The rare 14-centimetre rock carving was first spotted in the Teymareh rock art site in Khomein county, central Iran, during surveys between 2017 and 2018, but could not be identified due to its unusual shape.
The new findings were recently published in the open-access Journal of Orthoptera Research, contributed by entomologists Mahmood Kolnegari from the Islamic Azad University of Arak; Mandana Hazrati from Avaye Dornaye Khakestari Institute; and Matan Shelomi from National Taiwan University teaming up with freelance archaeologist and rock art expert Mohammad Naserifard.
The petroglyph shows a six-limbed creature with the head and arms of a praying mantis, but with two circles at its sides, similarly to the famous 'squatter man' petroglyph found at several locations around the world, ScienceDaily reported on Monday.
“It has six limbs has been described as part man, part mantis.”
Rock carvings, or petroglyphs, of invertebrate animals, are rare, so entomologists teamed up with archaeologists to try and identify the motif. They compared the carving with others around the world and with the local six-legged creatures which its prehistoric artists could have encountered, the report said.
The six limbs suggest an insect, while the triangular head with big eyes and the grasping forearms are unmistakably those of a praying mantis, a predatory insect that hunts and captures prey like flies, bees and even small birds.
Even more mysterious are the middle limbs, which end in loops or circles. The closest parallel to this in archaeology is the 'Squatter Man,' a petroglyph figure found around the world depicting a person flanked by circles. While they could represent a person holding circular objects, an alternative hypothesis is that the circles represent auroras caused by atmospheric plasma discharges.
A praying mantis, Empusa hedenborgii, which may have inspired the petroglyph, according to the research team. (Credit: Mr. Mahmood Kolnegari)
It is presently impossible to tell exactly how old the petroglyphs are because sanctions on Iran prohibit the use of radioactive materials needed for radiocarbon dating. However, experts Jan Brouwer and Gus van Veen examined the Teymareh site and estimated the carvings were made 40,000-4,000 years ago.
One can only guess why prehistoric people felt the need to carve a mantis-man into rock, but the petroglyph suggests humans have linked mantis to the supernatural since ancient times. As stated by the authors, the carving bears witness, "that in prehistory, almost as today, praying mantis were animals of mysticism and appreciation."
Prehistoric rock art provides insights into past eras and cultures as archaeologists classify the tools for the carvings by specific eras Incising tools include flint, metal, or thigh bones of hunted prey.