Today in the Department of Mysteries: 12-year-old Robby uncovers “culturally modified” bone in Jersey Village

Occasionally we receive artifacts at the Museum uncovered by curious residents who are looking to have their discoveries identified. The latest comes from 12-year-old Jersey Village resident Robby, who took it upon himself to write Associate Curator David Temple the following (quite impressive) letter:

Dear Sir or Madam,

My name is Robby, I am 12 years old, and I was walking along in my backyard, playing by myself, when I felt something painful and sharp stick into my foot, so naturally I stopped to investigate. I felt around for the article that wounded me, and I concluded that it was a bone. I unearthed it and further found that it was a bone that looked like it was a washer joint (the kind that the spinal cord travels through), and I washed it off carefully to see if there were any further marks that could tell me if it was a dinosaur bone, but there was nothing. I was hoping that you could either radiometric date it, or DNA test it to see if it was. I have enclosed the bone in an envelope. Please let me know as soon as you find out.


2 days later, I found another bone that looked almost identical to the bone I found previously. It is a little bigger, and dirtier. Please respond!

"Culturally Modified Cow Bone" - the latest from The Department of Mystery

Temple looked over the bones and, upon concluding his research and determining their true origins, issued the following response on official Museum letterhead:

Dear Robby,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the bones. When researching these things, particularly to which ancient animal a fossil bone may have belonged, a great place to begin would be a geologic map of the relevant area.

Geologic maps are peculiar; they are less about telling you how to get some place and more about telling where you are in time. The sediments that Jersey Village sits on are from the Quaternary within the Cenozoic; your backyard is outcropping the Beaumont Formation at the oldest, which gets you somewhere between 10,000 and 2 million years ago (give or take).

Pleistocene-aged animals lived on the sediments in your yard, and their remains could be buried in these sediments. No dinosaurs; however mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths all are animals that lived in the area during that time. I am enclosing a copy of the geologic map of Texas for your perusal. Find Houston and match the color on the key; where ever you find yourself, that’s where you are.

From careful analysis, we know your samples to come from an ungulate from the genus Bos. These pieces are not vertebra, but pieces from the legs of the animal. Though not old enough to be a paleontological sample, these do qualify for archaeological/anthropological analysis.

One thing I determined was that this animal was probably eaten by a sometime predatory species, likely Homo sapiens. I will say this conceding that the teeth and jaws of Homo sapiens are not adapted for chewing hard bones. You yourself noted the absence of marks on your sample bones, and I agree with your estimation and believe it significant.

Also, your samples do not bear any markings that would indicate primary feeding or secondary scavenging by Canis lupus familiaris, or Canis latrans. These animals are or were recently common in Jersey Village. Their teeth and jaws are well-adapted for crunching bone and leaving diagnostic traces of this feeding behavior.

Another bit of evidence pointing to primary consumption by a member of the genus Homo is that species’ nearly unique adaptation for making and using tools. Your sample bones show cultural modification, specifically butchering.

As mentioned above, the flat sides of the bones show them to have been modified with a saw, probably with the muscles attached. The smooth, even sides point to a mechanical, fine-toothed saw rather than a hand saw.  Considering practices in local culture, this bone and attached muscle were likely placed over a fire, for a short period of time, as the bones do not appear to be charred.

In archaeology, the three things to remember are context, context, and context. Were these bones by themselves or were there other objects with them? Bits of metal or glass maybe? If those objects are associated with the bones that would strongly support the “BGM” hypothesis below. Also the age of your home is a potential clue.

Before trash pick-up was available, garbage was frequently burned in the backyard and buried. While more charring over all surfaces on your bone samples would help support this, the absence of charring does not rule out the “Buried Garbage Model.” It is possible that there was a burn ban, or the responsible party for trash disposal just did a really bad job. Sadly there are questions science cannot answer, at least not without more fieldwork. Your sample could still have been buried, which would have kept it from being chewed by dogs or coyotes.

To summarize, you do not have a dinosaur, sadly. You did find the remains of a barbeque, shank steaks were served, they were likely served rare, medium rare, medium well at most. The bones were then thrown outside and the people either had no dog, and/or buried their trash. Your samples are not good candidates for radiometric dating; what is associated with the bones would be your best way of dating your site, but I would guess near the Late Recent.

I encourage you to keep looking down; you never know what you’ll find. If there is old glass or metal where you found the bones, be careful not to cut yourself when examining these fragments.

If you would like to go fossil hunting, get your parents to look up the Houston Gem and Mineral Society. They take regular trips to outcrops to collect fossils. If you want to know where dinosaur fossils in Texas might be found, the enclosed map has the answer. Dinosaur fossils can also be found locally at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I am returning your samples as I am contemplating becoming a vegetarian, and they make me hungry.

David Temple
Associate Curator of

Robby’s samples were returned to him this week along with the Museum’s encouragement to keep curious. Tune in to the Beyond Bones for future installments from The Department of Mysteries.

Unravel the coldest case on record: Talk Otzi the Iceman in a Distinguished Lecture on May 14

“Otzi the Iceman,” a 5,300-year-old Copper Age/Neolithic man, was found in 1991 preserved in the Similaun Pass of the Otztal Alps at 10,500 feet between Italy and Austria. Since the discovery, extensive ongoing scientific investigations indicate that he is unique because “Otzi” is practically an archaeological site in himself.

Unlike any other human remains of this age discovered to date, nearly every bit of Otzi is preserved, including his clothing, tools, gear, weapons — even his last meals. Amazing forensic science has recovered many details about his life through the material technology he carried, including a rare and precious copper axe, and vital medical and bioarchaeological data. This includes his DNA and a full genome record, where he lived in the prehistoric Val Senales, and reconstructions and possible scenarios of how he was killed.

Not only did Otzi treat his own parasites, showing prehistoric human medicine, but he used and carried more than 10 different tree and plant products that survived in his glacial context. Even his weapons demonstrate early archery using spiraling arrows, suggesting prehistoric knowledge of aerodynamic stabilizing technology. For those fascinated with forensic and C.S.I. investigation, Otzi may be the “coldest case” on record.

Dr. Patrick Hunt of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project has studied Otzi’s tools and paleobotanical specimens in Bolzano, Italy, where Otzi resides frozen, as well as in the Otztal Alps where he lived and was found.

Meet Dr. Hunt at a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS on May 14.  This lecture is co-sponsored by Archaeological Institute of America – Houston Society with support of Applied Diagnostics and Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Bracey.

What: Distinguished Lecture: “Frozen in Time – The Story of Otzi the Iceman”
When: Tuesday, May 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science main campus
How Much: $12 for members, $18 for general public. Tickets available here.

Debunking doomsday? Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout on the real history of the Maya

One of the most vexing questions that seems to torment a whole lot of people these days is: “do I need to buy Christmas gifts this year?” A lot has been made of the Maya calendar, its end on December 21 this year, and the end of the world as we know it.

But the question that vexes me is: why do people even believe in this you-know-what? You can find the answers to these questions and more at the newly opened Maya exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History surveys about 3,500 years of Maya history, starting with the earliest evidence, which dates back to about 1500 BC. The story covers the colonial period and ends with the contemporary Maya. Toward the end of the exhibit, visitors have a chance to learn more about the different ways of Maya timekeeping. The exhibit ends with a video featuring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining that the fearmongers who talk of a once-in-a-lifetime celestial alignment with all kinds of dire consequences actually “forgot to tell us something.”

In this blog, I want to address the basics of Maya history; I will start with the who, when and where questions.

First: Who are the Maya?

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryThe term “Maya” refers to people who used to live, and continue to live, in southern portions of Mexico (including the Yucatan Peninsula, Tabasco and Chiapas), as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The term “Maya” is a western label; the Maya refer to themselves by the language they speak. Someone might say, “I am a Mam”, or “I am a Chorti.” This translates into “I am part of the people who speak Mam, or Chorti.” Today, 30 different Mayan languages are still spoken. Additional languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Spaniards.

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Maya are still around, and so are many parts of their traditions. Although their culture was absorbed into that of the Conquistadores, there remain many vibrant expressions of Maya culture. In addition to the geographic areas identified in the map above, Maya people now also call other parts of the world home, including Houston.

The History of Maya research

A strange thing happened when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas. On the one hand, their presence brought about upheaval and ended the independence of indigenous cultures, such as the Aztecs, Maya and many others. On the other hand, some Europeans were fascinated by the “exotic” nature of these new cultures and set out to study them. One such person was Diego de Landa, the second bishop of Yucatán.

Diego de Landa manuscript on the ancient MayaA page from de Landa’s manuscript, with an attempt to represent the ancient Maya”alphabet. One can see renderings of maya glyphs with associated Latin script letters. (Image courtesy of

Initially, most of the people who studied the Maya and other indigenous people were friars. Their goal was to convert people, and that required learning about their new flock — including learning the language. These friars produced dictionaries for several Maya languages, which have been a great help to modern researchers in their attempts to translate ancient Maya hieroglyphs.

During the colonial period, Spain initiated some efforts to study the ruins of Maya cities, such as Palenque. These efforts resulted in reports sent back to Madrid, but did little otherwise to bring the culture of the ancient Maya to the attention of a wider public. That did not happen until the 19th century, when European and American explorers traveled through the region.

Perhaps the best known of these travelers are John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose contributions, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán; Incidents of Travel in Yucatán; and Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán were hugely popular. They still are today. After World War I, American museums and universities started extensive research programs, culminating perhaps in the University of Pennsylvania’s Tikal Project of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, for  a variety of reasons, those efforts have been scaled back. It should be noted, however, that archaeologists from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are now playing a much bigger role than in the early days of investigations.

Cultural subdivisions 

The ancient Maya and their modern descendants live in a wide range of natural environments. They lived in the breathtaking mountains in Guatemala and adjacent Chiapas, where we can still visit them today. They also existed the middle of the rainforest and in the challenging coastal plains and mangrove swamps of the Yucatán peninsula.

Maya culture: a timeline

We know where the Maya lived; next we deal with another question: how far back in time can we identify them as Maya in the archaeological record? Western researchers have superimposed a chronological framework on Maya history using terminology borrowed from European archaeology. Thus we find terms like the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods. While this may make sense to us, ancient Maya would have no clue what we are talking about. A division of time into units known as “bak’tuns,” which are almost 400 years long, would be more familiar to them.

Earliest beginnings

Human presence in this part of the world predates 10,000 BC. Evidence of mammoth hunters has been found in the Highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. A rare paleoindian point from Guatemala is on display here in Houston. Surveys in Belize have produced data on human activity dating back to the same period, as well. Recent discoveries in caves off the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, have yielded some of the oldest known human remains in the Americas.

Tentative dates suggest that permanent settlements existed along the Belize coast as long ago as 4,300 BC. The abundance of wildlife and plant life may have been the reason why people could stay permanently, as there is no evidence of agriculture to explain this sedentary (permanent) lifestyle.

Pre-Classic period (c. 1700 BC — 250 AD)

To date, the earliest known pottery from the region comes from the Pacific coast of Guatemala and dates to 1,700 – 1,500 BC. In Belize, the earliest ceramics date to 1,000 – 500 BC. These dates, part of the Preclassic period, mark the appearance of the Maya in the archaeological record.

At this stage, Maya communities are small, probably with a population of only a few hundred people. These are early farmers, who grew corn, squash and beans in their gardens. They also hunted and fished wherever possible.

Because these were small communities, the permanent structures they built were also modest. Still, they did produce house platforms. Their houses looked like a lot of Maya houses still look today: poles stuck into the ground (or platform) and a thatch roof. The walls were covered with mud in a manner that archaeologists call “wattle and daub.” Sometimes, when a house burned down, the mud got baked and the impressions of the sticks that made up the walls were preserved. These broken pieces of baked clay with stick impressions are found frequently in excavations. Modern Maya houses of this nature have two doors, and representations of dwellings in Maya art show them to have the same configuration.

Maya public buildings, such as temples, were also small in scale. Their presence, however, indicates that these early Maya made the time — and had the necessary workforce — to put these types of buildings together. Efforts like these are also interpreted as evidence of the presence of an authority figure. In other words, they had a chief or a headman in the village telling them what to do.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. While small-scale architecture was probably the norm for a large portion of the Pre-classic Maya, we do know of Preclassic Maya cities that were huge.

Examples of such a Pre-classic behemoths are Nakbe and El Mirador in northern Guatemala. Nakbe goes back to at least 1,000 BC. Initially, its architecture (both regular dwellings and public structures) seems to have been small-scaled. However, around 600 – 400 BC, the Maya started building larger structures. This culminated toward the end of the Pre-classic period, when they built four of their largest structures.

The successor to Nakbe was El Mirador. The base of its La Danta pyramid measured six times the footprint of the largest pyramid at Tikal. This city also had raised causeways connecting different temple complexes. The size of this city (as large as Tikal or larger) and the scale of its buildings (larger than Tikal in some cases), at this early date (Middle to Late Preclassic) has forced archaeologists to re-think the trajectory of the development of Maya society.

Initially archaeologists were comfortable with a linear development: the earliest Maya were the “simplest”; the later Maya were more complex. That translated into early buildings that were small and later structures that were much larger. But El Mirador showed that linear sequence to be a false one: at a time when the Maya were supposed to be in their “simple” stage they were already building very large temples. Moreover, El Mirador itself collapsed. It took until the Classic period for cities of this nature to re-appear again.

Maya society went through many ups and downs. These swings between fortune and misfortune are well known in the Classic period Maya.

Classic period (250 – 900 AD)

The Classic period is characterized by the florescence of many Maya cities. The rulers of these cities commissioned stelae, or large carved stone slabs, to glorify their achievements. Thanks to years of meticulous archaeological research (followed by many decades of head scratching and attempts to decipher Maya writing) a general historic framework is now in place. We have a concise view of the history, as reflected in the citizens’ own texts, for more than a dozen cities. References to calendrical cycles in texts, as well as the alignment of buildings to correspond to solstices and equinoxes, testifies to the Maya’s ability in the fields of astronomy and timekeeping.

This is also a time when the Maya interact with other areas of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the best-known exchange is that between Tikal and Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. In 378 AD, a delegation from Teotihuacan arrives at Tikal. It appears that the leader of this delegation had a military background. The texts at Tikal mention how, on the same day that this delegation arrives, the king of Tikal died. We are fortunate enough to have fairly extensive written information on this episode in Maya history.

Maya texts also mention warfare among Maya cities, and the alliances they concluded in an attempt to encircle their mutual enemies. Cities and even small rural communities fortified themselves in an attempt to protect themselves against raids. Some communities even dug large trenches and used the excavated dirt to build enormous ramparts on the inside portion of moats. This phenomenon of warfare becomes more pervasive toward the end of the Classic period; warfare is often invoked as a cause of the so-called Maya collapse.

Postclassic period (900 — 1,546/1,697 AD)

The Maya collapse did not mean the end of Maya culture. Sites in northern Belize experienced rapid growth in the 10th century. It has been suggested that part of that growth was due to the arrival of refugees from the collapsing cities.

During the Postclassic, cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala flourish. Perhaps the most famous Maya city at this time is Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, our understanding of that city and others is still limited.

The Postclassic period is a period of internal change; the Maya are abandoning certain practices, such as their long-held custom of complex calendrical computations. The Postclassic Maya preferred using a simplified version, instead. The Postclassic comes to an end with the arrival of the Spaniards.


The first contact between Maya and Spaniards occurred in 1502, when Columbus encountered a sea-going canoe in the Gulf of Honduras. Nine years later, in 1511, shipwrecked Spaniards land on the coast of Yucatán. Two of them survive, while the others perish at the hands of the local Maya. The Spaniards, in search of gold and other riches, had a very hard time conquering the Maya, especially those Maya living in the Yucatán Peninsula. It took them almost 20 years (from 1527 to 1546) to establish nominal control over the peninsula. It was not until 1697 that the last independent Maya surrendered. They lived in northern Guatemala on an island in Lake Petén Itza.

Colonial-period Maya

Our understanding of the colonial-period Maya is mostly text-based rather than based on archaeology. Archival documents associated with legal and religious issues are dispersed across the landscape. Those few Maya who could read and write during this period tended to serve their communities as notaries and assistants to Spanish church officials. It is from their pens that we learn of Maya attitudes and thinking with regard to the new arrivals in their world.

The Maya repeatedly rose up against the Spaniards. They did so in 1542, 1562, 1761 and from 1840 through 1901. These events have been the subject of a good number of books. The Yucatán peninsula, in particular, was the scene of a prolonged, brutal conflict known as the Caste War, which lasted from 1847 to 1901.

The Maya today

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryA modern Maya couple checks voicemail. Photo courtesy Rosalinda Mendez.

While modern Maya continue to have social and economic problems, a small number hold advanced degrees and serve as junior ministers in national governments. Thirty Mayan languages are still spoken. The artistry in weaving still continues. With the advent of mass media, the Maya too are getting plugged into the wider world.

Educator How-to: Teach archaeology with edible excavation

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to keep track of what they find — just like an archaeologist does.

Archaeologists keep careful records, as do all scientists. One important way to keep track of their work is by mapping where each artifact is discovered. Show your students how to plot artifact locations onto a grid with this tasty activity!

• Large chocolate chip cookies with lots of chips
• Toothpicks – 1 box
• Waxed paper sheets
• Cookie grid
• Markers
• Masking tape
• Ziploc baggies – 1 per child

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 7.40.37 PMA printable cookie grid just for you


1. Tell the students that they are going to be excavating a chocolate chip cookie. And just like a real archaeologist, they must record where each “artifact” is found. In addition, they must be as careful as possible to get each “artifact” out of the “dig site” with the least amount of damage.

2. Supply each student with a cookie, a piece of waxed paper, a toothpick, a pencil, and a cookie grid worksheet.

3. Students should carefully draw a grid on their cookie using a black marker. It should match the grid on the worksheet cookie as closely as possible.

4. Students should then carefully excavate the “artifacts” out of the cookie trying to cause as little damage to the “artifact” (the chips) or the “dig site” (the cookie).

5. When they retrieve an “artifact,” they must assign it a number and plot it on the cookie grid. When an “artifact” is removed, it should be put on a small piece of masking tape and numbered.

6. Give each child a baggie to put all of their “artifacts” in.

7. When the time is up for this activity, count each child’s “artifacts” and look at the condition of their “dig site” to determine the most successful archaeologist for the day.

While we are working with cookies here, we do not advise eating the dig site or munching on your priceless artifacts — extra cookies are recommended!