The little owls engraved on thousands of slate plaques found in tombs and wells on the Iberian Peninsula dating back 5,000 years were toys of Copper Age children, not ritual amulets.
This new interpretation is suggested by the comparison of the ancient engravings with the owls drawn by modern children, in a study carried out by a research group led by Juan J. Negro of the Spanish Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) and published in the journal Scientific Reports .
Scholars examined 100 of the more than 4,000 Copper Age slate plaques (between 5,500 and 4,750 years ago) that have been found in tombs and wells across the Iberian peninsula.
Each plaque was rated on a scale of one to six based on how many distinctive owl characteristics (two eyes, feathered tufts, feathers with geometric designs, flat snout, beak, wings) were depicted in the engraving.
From the comparison with one hundred drawings of owls made by today's children aged between 4 and 13, numerous similarities emerged.
The researchers then focused their attention on the two small holes present at the top of many slate plates: considered impractical for passing a string through which to hang the improbable amulet (so much so that no signs of wear were even detected), they could actually be used to attach real feathers to simulate the tufts that soar on the heads of some regional owl species, such as the long-eared owl (Asio otus).
The study therefore concludes that the baby owls would not have been engraved by the expert hands of craftsmen to represent deities or the deceased, but would have been made by children, with more realistic results as their age and their carving skills increased.