The mystery of the owl figures from 5,000 years ago is unraveled: it was a toy

A study conducted by Juan José Negro, a researcher at the Conselho Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) at the Doñana Biological Station (EBD), suggests that the owl-shaped slate slabs found 5,000 years ago in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula could have been created by children to be used as toys. This research, published in Scientific Reports magazineoffers a new perspective on the origin and use of these archaeological objects and on how children used different artifacts and played in prehistoric European societies.

The number of slate plaques depicting owls found in tombs and graves on the Peninsula is around 4,000. They date between 5,500 and 4,750 years ago and often share several features, such as two engraved circles for eyes and a contoured body at the bottom representing an owl’s plumage.

Due to their peculiar anatomy, they have always been represented in the same way since the first engravings in caves 30,000 years ago.

Juan José Negro, CSIC researcher

“Owls are a group of bird species that are very different from all the others and are easily recognizable,” explains Negro. “They have a compact silhouette, with huge heads and frontally positioned eyes, like humans. Due to this peculiar anatomy, they have always been represented since the first engravings in caves 30,000 years ago until now in the same way: sometimes showing the frontal part directly, sometimes with the head turned and looking at the observer”, indicates the EBD- CSIC researcher .

Similarities to current children’s drawings of owls

For over a century there has been speculation about the origin of these plaques and they were believed to have ritual significance and represent deities or deceased persons. Negro and his collaborators re-examined this interpretation and suggest instead that these figurines could have been created by children based on species of owls present in the area and that they could have been used as dolls, toys or amulets.

The team analyzed 100 pictures and ranked them, on a scale of one to six, according to how many of the owls’ features were reflected, such as two eyes, tufts of feathers on the head, a feather pattern, a flat facial disc, a beak and wings. Later, they compared these numbers with 100 current drawings of boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 13 and saw many similarities. The drawings looked more realistic as the children got older and more skilled with the pencil.

The children somehow realized that the essence of an owl is that big head with two big eyes that look at you.

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Guillermo Blanco, researcher at MNCN

“The kids somehow realized that the essence of an owl is that little head with two big eyes that look at you. They were painted like that because they can hold a pencil. In prehistory, they were probably represented like this, because they learned to engrave a stone using another stone”, explains Guillermo Blanco, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC) and co-author of the work.

slate boards, learning objects

The team also noticed that the two holes at the top of many of the figures seemed impractical for threading a string to hang them on the wall as ritual objects. The researchers believe that these holes would have been used to insert feathers representing the ear-like tufts of feathers on the heads of some species of owls present in the area, such as the long-eared owl or Asio otus.

“These slate slabs, so characteristic of the Copper Age in the Iberian Peninsula, may have been part of learning how to handle stone objects”, says Víctor Díaz, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), another of the authors. the study.

The fact that numerous plaques have been found in funerary contexts indicates that they could also be used as a tribute to the deceased. Young people could have honored their elders by leaving them objects that they were involved in making or that they appreciated. “The two questions, learning object and ritual object, are not mutually exclusive”, clarifies the researcher.

These slate slabs, so characteristic of the Copper Age in the Iberian Peninsula, could have been part of the learning process of handling stone objects.

Víctor Díaz, UCM scientist

These numbers can provide insight into child behavior in Copper Age societies. “In the study of prehistory, not much attention was paid to the cultural role of children and young people. Bearing in mind that they must have been the most important group demographically, since few people reached advanced age, it would be important to dedicate more analysis effort to them”, suggests Negro. “The collaboration between evolutionary biology and art history in this study shows that successful results are achieved when knowledge and perspective are provided from disciplines traditionally considered very remote”, he concludes.

Reference: Juan J. Negro et al. “Copper Age Owl Plates and Children’s Engagement”. Scientific Reports🇧🇷

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