Over the last century, thousands upon thousands of pieces made of slate with images of owls were found in tombs and pits on the Iberian Peninsula. These are now located in Portugal and Spain.
They date back to around 5,000 years ago and have been puzzled by archaeologists for over a century. Many believed they were goddesses, and that they primarily served a ritual function. New research, published on Thursday, suggests that they were toys designed and used by children.
Victor Diaz Nunez de Arenas was the co-author of the study and a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid’s department of art historians. He said that the informal appearance of the engravings made it doubtful they were ritual objects. Many of the engravings were also found in homes or other archaeological sites, which did not indicate a ritual context.
The research team examined 100 slate plaques to verify that they were toys. They also documented which owl characteristics were included in the engraving, including feathery tufts and patterned feathers, as well as a flat facial disc, beak, wings, and feathery tufts. They were then compared with 100 images of owls that had been drawn earlier in the year by children aged 4-13 at an elementary school located in southwestern Spain. Their teacher asked them to draw an owl in 20 minutes. There were no other instructions.
Diaz Nunez de Arenas via email stated that the similarities between these plaques and drawings by children of today are “very remarkable.” “One thing they reveal about us about those children is that their vision of an owl (is) very similar to what we see today.”
He said that it’s difficult to know how prehistoric children might have played with the Owls. However, many states have perforations that could have allowed children to insert feathers at the top.
Engraving the owls would have been a fun way for children to learn prehistoric skills.
“The engraving of these plaques allowed the youngest to learn about the various techniques of carving and engraving stone. This is essential for the realization of other objects such as knives and points of the arrows that are used in daily functional tasks. He said that it could be used to identify and select the best stone carvers in the community.
Diaz Nunez de Arenas suggested that the slate owls might have played a ceremonial role as well, allowing children to take part in community ceremonies like burials and offering their dolls or toys as a tribute for loved ones who are no longer with us.
Dr. Brenna Hasett, an archaeologist at University College London, was not part of the study but agreed that ritual objects from ancient times might have multiple uses. She stated that prehistory is still a very understudied field and not enough information was available about children’s play.
“We must remember that many things were made of perishable materials, such as string, fur, and wood. That is why it is so rare to see something that is unmistakably a ‘toy’,” said Hassett, author of “Growing Up Human” in 2022.
These plaques aren’t the oldest potential toys found in archaeological records. Diaz Nunez de Arenas stated that animal figurines found in Siberia’s children’s graves date back about 20,000 years. Hassett, however, said that spinners and thaumatropes discovered in French caves from around 36,000 years ago were thought to be toys.
Scientific Reports published the research on Thursday.