The Princes in the Tower: Modern Forensic Anthropology meets Medieval Crime

The field of Forensic Anthropology is an interesting one because it has both modern-day and historic applications. Forensic Anthropology can be applied in a modern context in a legal capacity, but by applying Forensic Anthropological Techniques to past human remains, we can discover who they were, how they perished, who they were related to, where they came from, et cetera, and thereby are presented with a wealth of information on an individual and their circumstances, which can inform us on the era they lived in. Such discoveries are always significant, such as in the case of the “Princes in the Tower;” Prince Edward V and Duke Richard IV of York. 

In 1483, during the “War of the Roses,”  Richard III seized the throne of England from his nephews Edward V (age 12) and Richard IV (9 yrs.), confining them to the Tower of London, allegedly for their own safety, where less and less was seen of them before they mysteriously vanished from all records. Of course, everyone assumed that power-hungry Richard III had done away with his nephews, but nothing could be proved until near two centuries later, when construction on the Tower in 1674 led to the discovery of a wooden chest containing what were believed to be the bones of the vanished princes, clad in velvet. They were interred in Westminster abbey, where they have only been disturbed once [The Princes in the Tower].

In 1933 the bones were examined by Lawrence E. Tanner and William Wright, Anthropologists from Cambridge University, who determined that the bones belonged to two boys, ages 10 and 12 (the ages of the Princes at the time) who had been related by blood [Wallace/Camping-Harris, 2022]. Their examination of the jawbones revealed several missing teeth, which they likened to a congenital condition suffered by the Princes’ paternal grandmother Dutchess Cecily of York. But this was far from definite. In 2012 the remains of King Richard III were discovered and examined more thoroughly. These results were compared to Tanner and Wright’s findings, and some inconsistencies were found. For example, Richard III, uncle of Edward V and Richard IV, did not exhibit the same dental condition of their nephews’ remains and their grandmother’s [The Princes in the Tower], which raised questions about Richard III’s relations to the remains, and whether or not the remains were the Princes’ at all. These questions still have yet to be answered. The British Crown has refused any and all requests to further examine the remains. The only concrete evidence we have is that the bones belonged to children, though some speculate they could have belonged to more than 2 individuals. The proposed dental link between the remains and Dutchess Cecily is intriguing, but too small to draw full conclusions from. With modern technology, far more detailed analysis such as DNA sequencing could be conducted, but not unless the Crown consents to the bones’ further disturbance. 

Princes Edward and Richard rendered in oil by John Everett Millia (1829-96), from the Royal Holloway, University of London/Bridgeman Images
The Tower of London where the Princes were confined still stands to this day (getty images)


Wallace, Naomi and Camping-Harris, Marnie. 11/06/2022. “Skeletons in Westminster: Is it Time to Solve the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower?” Retrospect Journal (Accessed 9/29/2023)

“The Princes in the Tower,” Historic Royal Palaces (Accessed 9/30/2023),debated%20by%20historians%20centuries%20later.

“Edward V and Richard, Duke of York,” Westminster Abbey Commemorations (Accessed 9/30/2023)

“Research reveals the DNA of the ‘Princes in the Tower,’” University of Essex News (Accessed 9/29/2023)

Further Reading

More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII (Tim Thorton, University of Huddersfield)

Recent Investigations regarding the Princes in the Tower (Lawrence E. Tanner and William Wright, Cambridge University)

The Tollund Man and Other Bog Bodies

“Bog Bodies”, or cadavers found preserved in the peat bogs of northwestern Europe, are some of the most well preserved human remains discovered in archaeology. Because their bodies and belongings are often so intact, they garner quite a bit of speculation as to the circumstances of their life and death. Many have visible wounds and clear indications of violent death, often as products of religious sacrifice.  We are given a shockingly detailed piece of a much larger and more complicated context that is not fully understood. 

Peat bogs are composed of a tightly packed matrix of sphagnum plants. When these plants die, they release a sugar compound known as sphagnan that neutralizes nutrients in the water. This makes peat bogs a difficult environment for decay-causing bacteria to grow. Sphagnum also releases acid into the water, which ‘tans’ the cadaver’s skin, making it leathery and more resistant to damage (Moesgaard). This is why the faces of some bog bodies are so striking, as you can see every little detail of their expression in death, like in the case of the Grauballe man (Kuiper, Kathleen). 

Peat Moss

The Tollund Man is the most well preserved bog body to date, with even the sheepskin hat on his head intact. His head is topped with long hair in a braid, and only his arms and legs appear skeletal. He was found in 1950, and like many bog body discoveries, those who first found him thought he could have died quite recently. In reality his remains have been dated to 2,400 years ago (McGreevy, Nora). Several parts of his body have been studied, including attempts at DNA testing of samples collected from his femur and the base of his skull.The contents of his stomach revealed that his last meal was of porridge and fish (McGreevy, Nora).

A raised bog

All of these details can be known about bodies like the Tollund Man’s, but the question is, should we be invading his resting body to find them out? Information about his environment and living habits is invaluable when collected, to better understand the culture and world that he lived in so long ago, but is that enough? Did those who placed him in his resting place imagine that he would be on display in a museum for over half a century now? The ethics of unearthing and displaying human remains are quite complicated, as with any case where burial is involved.


McGreevy, Nora. July 22, 2021“What Did Tollund Man, One of Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies, Eat before He Died?”

Kuiper, Kathleen. “9 Noteworthy Bog Bodies (and What They Tell Us).” Encyclopædia Britannica.

Guerra-Doce, E., C. Rihuete-Herrada, R. Micó, R. Risch, V. Lull, and H. M. Niemeyer. April 6, 2023. “Direct Evidence of the Use of Multiple Drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (Western Mediterranean) from Human Hair Analysis.” Nature News.

Magazine, Smithsonian. May 1, 2017. “Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets.”

“Moss Magic – Sphagnum Preservation.” Moesgaard Museum. Accessed October 1, 2023.

Further Reading:

A Momentus Addition to the Archaeological Record: The Heat Treatment Revolution

In this recent week of class, we discussed early human techniques and their evolution in constructing various stone tools. We reviewed the types of percussion and hammering, and the four innovations in stone knapping: The Oldowan, Acheulian, Levallois, and Blade Technology techniques. These methods occurred alongside cognitive development in early humans. For instance, spatial awareness allowed for precise strikes and removal of flakes from a core stone. Goal-setting enabled the visualization of a final tool and a method to complete that end. Early humans exhibited significant creativity in devising stone tool techniques. Hence, it is hard to believe that the archaeological record was limited to four construction techniques. Early human ingenuity must have resulted in other methods of tool manufacturing. 

Upon investigation, I discovered that ancient craftsmen employed heat treatment to temper their tools. Archaeological research from South Africa dates the earliest use of heat treatment to 45,000-70,000 years ago… stone tools were heated to roughly 600 degrees and likely buried under fire to make the stone easier to shape (Fountain). After heat treatment, less force was needed to flake a core. Percussion could be done with greater control and precision. Experimental archaeology was applied to validate these claims of heat treatment. Archaeologists matched the color of uncovered silcrete blades on the South African Coast by heating and flaking silcrete themselves (Fountain). 

A silcrete nodule showing experimental changes in texture and color resulting from exposure to heat.

Photo Credit: Science/AAAS

Heat treatment was a prevalent practice. According to Mary Louise Kelly from All Things Considered on NPR, “Scientists say it [heat treatment] may have actually happened much earlier – 300,000 years ago. That’s based on a study of rock shards in the Middle East.” Further, “heat treatment first occurred in Europe about 25,000 years ago” (Fountain). Evidently, heat treatment was integral to the survival of different early human communities; it was an intercontinental and enduring innovation.  

The adoption of heat treatment also transpired with growth in the cognition of early humans. Several skills were developed to produce tempered crafts. Sophisticated, controlled use of fire building was one adaptation (Early Humans Used). An understanding of careful planning and multi-tasking was another adaptation, as explained by Wadley and Prinsloo, “the making of compound adhesives involve[d] not only careful planning, but also multi-tasking…The artisan need[ed] to simultaneously mix ingredients, control fire temperature, and mentally rotate stone tools to create the desired composite product.” The archaeological record dispels ignorant notions of early humans being primitive. In actuality, they exhibited cognitive complexity and adeptly utilized their resources for survival. 

The photo shows heated artifacts in silcrete made by Homo sapiens at Klipdrift Shelter, South Africa. Photo: Katja Douze, University of the Witwatersrand

Photo Credit: (Humans Used Fire)

Several other early human misconceptions are challenged by the discovery of heat treatment. First, early humans did not manufacture stone tools through only knapping and flaking. Second, fire was not only used for protection, cooking, and warmth. Third and lastly, heat treatment existed long before archaeologists’ first discovery of it in Europe, which was dated to 25,000 years ago (Fountain). Ultimately, heat treatment exemplifies transformative, early human adaptability and has clarified contemporary misperceptions of their capabilities. 

Reference List

“Early Humans Used Innovative Heating Techniques to Make Stone Blades.” ScienceDaily,

 October 20, 2016.

Fountain, Henry. “Early Humans Used Heat to Shape Their Tools.” The New York Times, August

 13, 2009.

“Humans Used Fire Earlier than Previously Known.” University of Bergen. Accessed October 1,


“Scientists Find Proof Early Humans Could Control Fire Temperature in Tempering Tools.” NPR,

 October 6, 2020.  

Wadley, L., Prinsloo, C. Linda. “Experimental Heat Treatment of Silcrete Implies Analogical

 Reasoning in the Middle Stone Age.” Journal of Human Evolution, April 5, 2014.,an%20attribute%20of%20complex%20cognition.  

Additional Readings:

Delagnes, Anne, Patrick Schmidt, Katja Douze, Sarah Wurz, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, Nicholas J

 Conard, Klaus G Nickel, Karen L van Niekerk, and Christopher S Henshilwood. “Early Evidence for the Extensive Heat Treatment of Silcrete in the Howiesons Poort at Klipdrift Shelter (Layer PBD, 65 Ka), South Africa.” PloS one, October 19, 2016.

Stolarczyk, Regine E, and Patrick Schmidt. “Is Early Silcrete Heat Treatment a New Behavioural 

Proxy in the Middle Stone Age?” PloS one, October 1, 2018.  

Obsidian Woven Through Aztec Society

Aztec society is one of the most well known native tribes in the world. They’re most well known for their intricate infrastructure and religion, however they had a very distinct and powerful military as well. The Aztecs heavily relied on warfare to smother invading tribes, gain resources and territory, and collect sacrifices. To gain such power, warriors depended heavily on weaponry such as bows and arrows, spears, javelin, clubs, swords, and specifically, the atlatl. While a fun word to say, it is a deadly weapon when used properly. The atlatl consisted of two separate mechanisms, a javelin or large dart and a wooden hook to sling the projectile to the users target. According to, this weapon was specifically used for long distance and could pierce chainmail armor of European soldiers and leather of other mesoamerican tribes. Almost every warrior in the tribe of city-state had the knowledge of how to wield an atlatl with its obsidian headed projectile. 

Figure 1. a demonstration of how an ancient atlatl would be thrown (Wikipedia 2023)

In their society, it was mandatory for men to participate in warfare, it was viewed as them fulfilling their role as a man and honoring the gods, specifically their war and sun god Huitzilopochtli. Since the Aztecs relied so heavily on warfare and were fearful of the repercussions of having an unworthy sacrifice to their sun god, the Aztecs made a gruesome and morally expensive offering, human sacrifice. 

FIgure 2. An Aztec Sun stone made as an offering to Huitzilopochtli (Aztec Sun Stone, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, 2023)

The reasoning for human sacrifice is circumstantially very sound however. The society feared that Huitzilopochtli would stop the sun, ceasing all life on earth. Typically, Aztecs would turn to prisoners of war as the sacrifice, never encouraging the slaughter of citizens in the city-state. In most cultures of the ancient times, priests would be ranked very high in the hierarchy, but according to, the priests did not have it easy. They were tasked with performing the human sacrifices with obsidian blades. These obsidian blades were made slowly by chipping away shards of the rock into an impossibly sharp edged weapon. The Aztecs used obsidian as projectile points and other tools throughout their community. Creating a knife or javelin head for an atlatl was a very intricate and trying process, one wrong strike to the obsidian and the tool would split in half, ruined. Obsidian was a precious, dangerous, and effective stone. In fact, the stone was so effective in their weaponry that the civilization didn’t even find the need to advance past it and towards metal. 

Figure 3. examples of what obsidian would be shaped into for weaponry (Daily Mail 2012)

Aztec culture and society was very complex and successful, they developed religion, agriculture, warfare and society, with one common thread, obsidian. Its relevance in all aspects of their culture made it a hot commodity and traced throughout Aztec history.


“Aztec Warriors: Rank and Warrior Societies – History.” 2014. History. July 23, 2014.

Cartwright, Mark. 2015. “Aztec Warfare.” World History Encyclopedia. March 18, 2015.

Mineo, Liz. 2018. “Unearthing the Secrets of the Aztecs.” Harvard Gazette. April 9, 2018.

Mexicolore. 2019. “Aztec Social Classes.” 2019.

Roos, Dave. 2018. “Human Sacrifice: Why the Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual.” HISTORY. October 11, 2018.

Cartwright, Mark. 2022. “Obsidian in Mesoamerica.” World History Encyclopedia. August 24, 2022.

“An Obsession with Obsidian | the Engines of Our Ingenuity.” n.d. Accessed October 2, 2023.

Further Reading:

Here is a more in depth interview about Aztec civilization in general:

Here is a journal on how different Mesoamerican civilization utilized obsidian:

Lithics from Greece contour hominin development throughout time.

Recent class discussions have consisted of explaining the importance and impact of lithics on archeological discoveries. The term lithic is derived from ancient Greek and means rock. This is why lithic technology can be defined as certain techniques that are used to produce various categories of stone tools. The first stone tools from two and a half million years before the present can be characterized as simplistic and non-selective. However, as time progressed significant additions were made to lithics further enhancing hominins’ ability to manipulate these stone tools to their benefit. Early lithics are smaller sections of stone that were produced by striking two stones together. This type of lithic is uniface, meaning that only one side of the stone had been flaked. Whereas the lithics that are more recent are biface tools meaning that two sides have been flaked. The resulting tool has a distinct purpose for each side. In addition, lithics began to be produced with stones of higher quality and structure leading to stronger tools. Furthermore, lithics began to become more symmetrical which shows that hominins underwent adaptations progressively. As time continued to progress lithic technology became even more advanced resulting in different facets of stone stools. Stone tools morphed from uncomplicated scrapers to intricate arrowheads. As hominins progressed, the tools that they used became more complex to keep up with their more elaborate lifestyle. Determining factors of more recent lithics are the bulb point near the bottom of the stone. The bulb point was formed as a result of a stone being struck against another hard surface. These identifiers are crucial in determining the period in which a certain lithic was used. Lastly, these devices molded human advancement and contributed to the development of hominins.

Figure 1. This image is depicting the anatomy of a lithic and providing a variety of views to fully understand how a lithic is developed. (Cambridge University Press & Assessment 2013)

Lithics are being discovered all throughout the world. Recently expert archaeologists: Panagiotis Karkanas, Eleni Panagopoulou, and Katerina Harvati found lithics that are from a “quarter of a million years before present.”(Paphitis 2023) The artifacts were unearthed from a site in the infamous “Megalopolis region of modern Greece.”(Paphitis 2023) These scientists reported that “rough stone tools”(Paphitis 2023) were observed at the site. Since these artifacts were simple stone tools that had sharp flakes it uncovers that they are from the “Lower Paleolithic stone tool industry.”(Paphitis 2023) The tools’ distinct shape and clear edges prove that the tools’ main purpose was for slaughtering and preparation of meals. Also, these tools aided the cultivation process of other plant and animal matter for hominin consumption.

Figure 2. This image shows the lithics that archaeologists Panagiotis Karkanas, Eleni Panagopoulou, and Katerina Harvati uncovered at their site in Greece. (American School of Classical Studies at Athens 2023)


Paphitis, Nicholas. “Newly discovered stone tools drag dawn of Greek archaeology back by a
quarter-million years.” ABC News. Last modified June 1, 2023. Accessed October 1, 2023.

Shea, John J. “Lithics Basics.” Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Last modified March 5,
2013. Accessed October 1, 2023.

“Newly discovered stone tools drag dawn of Greek archaeology back by a quarter-million years.”
American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Last modified June 2, 2023. Accessed October 1,2023.

Further Readings:

Discovery of 2,000-Year-Old Medical Instruments Uncovers Roman Medical Practices

The constant discovery of past technology undoubtedly changes our perception of how different advancements were made. Although it is true that today’s doctors have developed new techniques and methods, the doctors of the past, specifically Roman doctors, used many of the same medical tools that are currently used. 

Figure 2. A Roman fresco depicting an arrow being removed from Aenea’s thigh. Photograph by  Carole Raddato

In 2022, archaeologists discovered the 2,000-year-old remains of a Roman doctor near Jászberény, Hungary, and alongside the body was a collection of medical instruments including: “a forceps, for pulling teeth; a curet, for mixing, measuring and applying medicaments, and three copper-alloy scalpels fitted with detachable steel blades and inlaid with silver in a Roman style” (Lidz, 2023). People created products with metal alloys because they were discovered to be harder and tougher. Additionally, copper has antimicrobial properties, and in a time where hygiene was not at the same standards as it currently is, it was important to limit the chance of infection as much as possible. However, the tools were probably made without this intention. Egyptians first mentioned the use of antimicrobial effects, and they used it to sanitize drinking water and to treat chest wounds. 

Figure 1. Copper alloy medical instruments that were uncovered at the site in Hungary. Photograph by Rusznák Gábor/ELTE

The detail and material of these instruments indicated that the doctor was high-ranking and traveled to this area to perform his duties. Jászberény was part of a region outside of the Roman Empire and had a lot of conflicts. It was odd that a well-equipped medical professional would be there unless they came to the aid of a prestigious figure. Doctors were very rare according to Dr. Samu, research fellow at ELTE and member of the team on the dig, as, “Studying medicine was only possible, at the time, in a large urban center of the empire” (Lidz, 2023). Limiting the practice to a certain part of the empire, made medical work a very important occupation. Although this was not the first medical kit to be discovered, it was a rare find. Also, the limited amount of education offered, created many inexperienced medical professionals. Building a reputation in the empire would be important, indicating why this body that was discovered had such well-made instruments. Firsthand medical experience could also be found on the battlefield adding another possibility as to why the body could be found in this region.

The grave was purposefully chosen, and the doctor was most likely buried with his instruments as a sign of respect. However, as with all discoveries, it is not the only possibility and others must be considered.

Additional Information

How medical instruments were used –

More uses of Roman medicine –


Arendsen, Linda P, Ranee Thakar, and Abdul H Sultan. 2019. “The Use of Copper as an Antimicrobial Agent in Health Care, Including Obstetrics and Gynecology.” Clinical Microbiology Reviews. U.S. National Library of Medicine. August 14, 2019.

Lidz, Franz. 2023. “Scalpel, Forceps, Bone Drill: Modern Medicine in Ancient Rome.” The New York Times. The New York Times. June 13, 2023. 

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

The Role of Animal Tool Use in Understanding Human Cognitive Development

Recent discoveries of stone flakes from Macaque monkeys are challenging previously made assumptions of human cognitive evolution and abilities (Greenfieldboyce 2023). The earliest stone tools were quite simple – using direct percussion, one would use a hammer stone to break off flakes of another stone, called the core, to create a tool. In the first stages of this development, tool-making often only meant breaking a stone in half to create a sharp edge, but this developed into more refined tools, created by carefully flaking off stone, eventually on both sides of the tool (Renfrew 2018, 212).

An example of the earliest examples of stone tools – often simply sharp rock edges or flakes (Renfrew 2018).

An important part of the daily life of the Macaque monkeys in Thailand is the consumption of oil palm nuts. To eat the nuts, Macaques place the nut on a flat stone and then hit it with another stone, cracking it open. When the monkeys miss the nut, which can happen often, they may unintentionally break the flat stone underneath the nut, creating stone flakes that are very similar to early stone tools (Zorich 2023).

A Macaque monkey sits holding the stone tools used to crack a nut, surrounded by stone flakes (CGTN 2018).

Despite the fact that these flakes are largely understood to be unintentional and not used, there are a few possible implications of this discovery. The first is that early humans could have been inspired by the flakes they saw macaques making, leading them to create the first intentional stone flakes. Recent research has suggested that the date of development for stone tools may be over 3 million years ago rather than the previously imagined 2.6 million years ago. The discovery of these artifacts provides concrete evidence for an earlier date of the development of stone tools (Proffitt 2023).

The discovery of the Macaque stone flakes is also significant as it calls into the question the validity of flakes previously identified as anthropogenic. The stone flakes that the Macaques produce are almost indistinguishable from those intentionally created by humans. According to a study by Tomos Proffitt, around 20-30% of the earliest flakes could be attributed to the Macaques (2023). However, it is still possible to distinguish the two. Because the Macaque flakes were produced unintentionally and not used as tools, they lack the distinctive use-wear patterns that early human stone tools. In addition, if an archeologist has access to the core stone that the tools were flaked off of, they can analyze percussive patterns to determine if the entity creating the flakes had knowledge of fracture patterns and was using those patterns intentionally (Greenfieldboyce 2023). 

Because both types of flakes are so similar, this discovery emphasizes the importance of an accurate behavioral interpretation of artifacts. Upon first glance, Macaque flakes can easily be confused with human’s intentional flakes. Only with careful observation and analysis can the two be identified as separate entities. However, the striking similarities between the two types of flakes provides important evidence for an earlier development date of stone tools used by humans, potentially altering our understanding of the evolution of human cognitive ability.


Greenfieldboyce, Nell. “Stone Flakes Made by Modern Monkeys Trigger Big Questions about Early Humans.” NPR, March 10, 2023, sec. Shots – Health News.

“Monkeys Use Tools to Crack Nuts, Shuck Oysters .” CGTN, March 2018.

Proffitt, Tomos, Jonathan S. Reeves, David R. Braun, Suchinda Malaivijitnond, and Lydia V. Luncz. “Wild Macaques Challenge the Origin of Intentional Tool Production.” Science Advances 9, no. 10 (March 10, 2023): eade8159.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

Zorich, Zach. “What Stone-Wielding Macaques Can Tell Us about Early Human Tool Use.” Scientific American, March 10, 2023.

Further Reading:

Grief may be universal

The practice of burying the dead is a deeply rooted human, or so we thought, tradition that most likely began even before written history. It is not only a ritual to bring peace for the deceased, but can also reflect on the cultural and spiritual beliefs of a group. Turns out this is not only a human ritual, but non-human animal species have also been found to bury their dead. The homo naledi are a primate species that was discovered by Lee Berger at Stony Brook University (Romey). The homo naledi are scarily similar to the homo sapien on a physical level including similar: teeth, jaws and feet (Johanson). Thousands of their bone fragments were found in a deep underground chamber dubbed “the Chute”, located within the Rising Star cave system in South Africa’s Transvaal region (Romey). Although the name suggests that the bodies were dropped down “the Chute”, the condition of the skeletal remains alludes to the idea that the bodies were individually placed, like in graves for modern burials. The researchers who first found these remains said they were “found so deep within the cave system that they must have been intentionally put there by other members of the species (Davis)”. This burial is said to have occurred about 300,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest burials that we know of thus far. The arrangement of bodies within this complicated terrain hint at a symbolic or ritualistic significance. A study was conducted to see if primates were able to conduct rituals and it was found they only met certain qualifications, so it was called proto-rituals (Tennie & Schaik). For humans, to be considered a ritual, the action must be symbolic by nature and must be copied. The definition is similar for primates, which must follow the following criteria: “socially shared, symbolic feature(s) that are created via actions and/or results that require copying” (Tennie & Schaik). Some researchers argue that this presumed burial site reflect the homo naledi’s beliefs in an afterlife or their desire to commemorate the deceased. Others suggest that they may have been a way to strengthen social bonds within the group to express grief or loss. The practice of burying the dead has persisted across hundreds of thousands of years and continues to be a central aspect of human cultures worldwide. While modern burial practices may vary slightly from those of early homo species, the underlying principles of respect for the deceased and the need to commemorate their lives, as well as their ancestral past, remain consistent. 

Archeologists looking at the bones of 1 out of the 15 homo naledi found (Clark). 

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and the skull replica of a homo naledi (Eloff). 


Clark, Robert. National Geographic, 2023, Accessed 1 October 2023.

Davis, Josh. “Claims that ancient hominins buried their dead could alter our understanding of human evolution.” Natural History Museum, 5 June 2023, Accessed 1 October 2023.

Eloff, Brett. University of Kent, 5 November 2016, Accessed 1 October 2023.

Johanson, Donald C. “Homo naledi | Cave Site & Facts.” Britannica,  5 Jun. 2023, Accessed 1 October 2023.

Romey, Kristin. “A mysterious human species may have been the first to bury their dead.” National Geographic, 5 June 2023, Accessed 1 October 2023.

Tennie, Claudio, and Carel P van Schaik. “Spontaneous (minimal) ritual in non-human great apes?.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 375,1805 (2020): 20190423. doi:10.1098/rstb.2019.0423

Further Reading:

The Importance of Pre and Post Colonial Sources in Mesoamerican Cognitive Archeology

Discovering how people once thought is vital in contextualizing the events which unfolded in the past. Learning the rhetoric and philosophies of past people can inform the motivations and ideology which may have contributed to the manner in which events occurred. At a glance, this issue may look like it should be left entirely to historians as thoughts seem to leave no trace in the archeological record. Afterall, you can not dig a 50 centimeter by 50 centimeter sampling hole and find a thought floating around in there.

 What an archeologist can uncover in a sampling hole are symbols (which are pretty darn close to thoughts). A symbol is an object, Item, or idea which represents something else. An archeologist in the Yucatan peninsula might uncover a “yellow glyph” and identify it as the Maya symbol for south. (Miller and Taub 65-67) All human cultures are full of symbols, and very few if any are universal to all cultures. Mesoamerican religions offer strong depictions of serpents as revered gods (Miller and Taub 149) whereas Abrahamic religions are more likely to associate snakes with feared “devil.” It is the job of the archeologist to look past their own cultural symbols in order to decipher past ones.

These Symbols represent different directions. (Miller and Taub, 67)

During the conquest of the Americas, many Spaniards lacked the moral relativism to appreciate the culture of Indigenous Mesoamericans. Mesoamerican texts were labeled as idolatry and were burned. Information regarding thousands of years of recorded religion, culture, and ideology were engulfed by flames. Only fifteen pre-contact Mesoamerican books survived the conquest (Turner, 4). Despite this scarcity caused by Colonial atrocities, much can still be learned from these pre Colonial sources.

A wonderful example of this is the oldest surviving book in the Americas, the Códice Maya de México. Dated to 1051-1154, this document measures the movement of the planet Venus, revealing information about Mayan astronomy and mathematics through the way in which they were able to measure planetary movements. These movements are also contextualized within Mayan religiosity. 

On page 7 of the codex Venus’s 8 day period of disappearance is represented by Mayan numeral 8 () on the top left corner of the codex (also a symbol!). It is thought that Venus enters a “supernatural realm of jade and sunlight” depicted by a lance holding deity beside a “tree whose branches produce precious round jewels” Venus then returns on page 8 as the morning star (Turner, 76). Although the Mayans had a different writing system, a base 20 counting system, and a pantheon of unique deities. It is still possible to understand their symbols and the roles they played within their society. This example regarding pages 7-8 of the codex is only a sample of what we can learn from pre Hispanic books. 

Page 7 of the Codice Maya De Mexico (Formerly known as the Grolier Codex)

While much can be deciphered from the few remaining pre Colonial books, Archeologists and historians also rely heavily on post contact sources while still thinking critically about the biases held by their authors. Bernal Diaz Del Castillo’s Narrative, for example, can tell us much about Aztec foreign relations with neighboring groups. Besides travelogues, ethnographic sources were also made. Book 10 of the Florentine codex by Fray Bernadino de Sahagun has a list of Aztec Tlatoani and the townships conquered during the reign of each of them. Book six of Sahagun’s codex revolves entirely around Aztec rhetoric and moral philosophy making it extremely useful in understanding Mesoamerican thought. Archeologists must combine knowledge from both types of sources in order to get a clearer image of the past.

Florentine Codex - Wikipedia
A page from the Florentine Codex with images and Nahuatl writing.

Today, the internet presents exciting new opportunities for Mesoamerican cognitive archeology. The Getty Museum is set to launch the Digital Florentine Codex, an innovative and intuitive new way to study that source. The codex will include searchable terms, glossaries, lesson plans, and references to other sources including pre Hispanic ones. By combining pre contact and post contact sources, Mesoamerican thought can be better understood, allowing archaeologists to discover the hidden meaning among symbols lying between the stratigraphic layers of Mexico and Central America. By unearthing lost cognition and increasing its accessibility we can begin to counteract the cultural genocide perpetrated by Spanish colonization.

Works Cited (I have a physical copy of both of these books. If anyone wants to borrow them email me at

Turner, Andrew D. “Códice Maya de México: Understanding the Oldest Surviving Book of the Americas” Getty Research Institute, 2022, Los Angeles, California. 

Miller, Mary. Taub, Carl. “An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and The Maya.” Thames & Hudson, 1993, New York, New York.

Online Sources

Getty page for the digital Florentine Codex

Library of Congress HD images of the Florentine Codex

An amazing visual source for understanding Tenochtitlan

Britannica encyclopedia source on general Mayan hieroglyphs

New York Times source on the codex

Recent Findings Date Earliest Stone Tools at 3.3 Million Years Ago

Recent findings in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya date the oldest stone tools back thousands of years earlier than what was originally thought. The oldest stone tools were previously thought to be made by human ancestor Homo habilis (Figure 1) 2.8 million years ago in modern-day Ethiopia. However, these new stone tools push that date back to 3.3 million years, and were not even made by a direct human ancestor (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Differences in the parts of the skull (crania, maxillae, and mandibles) of Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus boisei, and Homo habilis.

The tools were found alongside the teeth of Paranthropus boisei (Figure 1), a type of hominin, and co-existed with many human ancestors like the Homo habilis. The teeth being found with the tools could indicate that Paranthropus used these stone tools. Thirty of these stone tools were found at the Lomekwi 3 site of many fossilized animal remains, those remains showing signs of butchery. The animals at the site included ancient hippopotamus, antelope, and baboon. These stone tools included hammerstones, cores, and flakes, all tools used to skin or pound animals and animal meat. The use of stone tools opens up a lot of new food options in the competitive environment. Especially with the tough, leathery skin of a hippo, stone tools would be very beneficial to getting into the meat. Most likely, the Paranthropus found a hippo carcass and cut off the meat they needed, as there were not any stones used for weaponry at the site (Figure 2). 

Partially excavated bones and associated artefacts.
Figure 2: A fossilized hippo skeleton was found alongside the tools. Photograph by: T. W. Plummer

Different methods of dating were used to confirm the date of the tools, such as radioactive dating and geomagnetic reversal dating. Radioactive dating is a method of dating rocks and other minerals by tracking specific radioactive isotopes like uranium or argon. By determining the rate of decay of the isotope, a relative date of the tool in question can be gathered. Geomagnetic reversal dating works by tracking the number of complete reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field, specifically in the poles. These dating methods, together with site analysis, proved that these stone tools were around 3.3 million years old. However, experts question if Paranthropus even made the tools. Some scientists believe that there was no way for the Paranthropus to have used stone tools, as they have teeth that indicate a more vegetarian diet, negating the need for meat-cutting tools. Even if Paranthropus didn’t construct the tools, the earlier date of use is still quite significant. 

However, if Paranthropus boisei did make the tools, it shows a type of convergent adaptation, in that different lineages saw the need for the same type of object. It also goes against the idea that the modern human lineage was the only one capable of tool making for a specific purpose. Humans may not be the only ones capable of this sophisticated tool usage, other organisms can develop it as well, which is a notable development. 


  1. BBC World News. “Ancient Stone Tools Found in Kenya Made by Early Humans.” BBC News, February 10, 2023.
  2. Hunt, Katie. “Sophisticated Stone Tools May Predate Humans, Study Suggests.” CNN, February 10, 2023.  
  3. Kreier, Freda. “Ancient Stone Tools Suggest Early Humans Dined on Hippo.” Nature News, February 9, 2023.  
  4. Weule, Genelle. “Nearly 3 Million Years Ago, a Butcher Hacked up a Hippo with a Crafted Stone Tool. They May Not Have Been Human.” 2.9-million-year-old butchery site in Kenya suggests humans perhaps weren’t first to use crafted stone tools – ABC News, February 9, 2023.
  5. Smithsonian. “2.9-Million-Year-Old Butchery Site Reopens Case of Who Made First Stone Tools.”, February 9, 2023.  

Further Reading

  1. Coleman, Jude. “New Caledonian Crows Keep Their Favorite Tools Safe.” Inside Science, February 15, 2022.  
  2. Muller, Antoine, Ceri Shipton, and Chris Clarkson. “Stone Toolmaking Difficulty and the Evolution of Hominin Technological Skills.” Nature News, April 7, 2022.