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Outside the Forensic Box: Ancient Witnesses

Eyewitness processes operated in the ancient world, as they do in the present.

Key points

  • Ancient people, like modern people, reported witnessing many things that are seemingly impossible.
  • Modern research in forensic cognitive psychology, especially in the eyewitness realm, can help to explain these sightings.
  • Modern observers are subject to the same psychological factors as ancient people; this research can help explain anomalies in modern science.
Matthew J. Sharps
Source: Matthew J. Sharps

As we have seen before in The Forensic View, forensic principles apply in areas of psychology far removed from the criminal justice system. This is perhaps particularly true of the amazing dynamics of eyewitness cognition.

Explorers and observers in all periods of history have provided us with eyewitness accounts of reality, yet they’ve also provided us with some amazing nonsense. Winged griffins, with eagles’ beaks and the bodies of lions, allegedly guarded gold in Asia. One-eyed Cyclops ruled islands in the Mediterranean. Mermaids swam the seas.

None of these things existed—except on cable TV—but people believe they have seen them. Somehow, we must explain these bizarre phenomena.

We can do so in terms of modern eyewitness psychology—and the dynamics involved are particularly clear on the role of expectations in how we interpret what we think we see.

Enter the work of Bransford and Johnson (1972), who studied prior frameworks in memory and understanding. They gave people a bizarre hash of apparently unconnected sentences—“If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry… a closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying… a break in the wire would also cause problems… of course the fellow could shout….”

Essentially gibberish. That’s exactly how respondents experienced it—nobody could remember the text, and they had no idea what was going on.

But that was the control group. The experimental group, before they saw the paragraph of gibberish, saw a picture of a male guitar player serenading a woman through her open window, implausibly using balloons to support his amplifier at window level.

This picture provided them with the requisite prior framework. Balloons, right? They’re holding up the amp. Window, right—if she closes the window, she can’t hear the song. If the wire breaks, the amp connection’s lost.


Respondents were able to use this bizarre picture as a prior framework for understanding to understand the bizarre text and remember it better. The prior cognitive framework of the picture influenced their interpretation.

But what if a prior framework leads to erroneous interpretations?

Take the foundational Greek historian Herodotus. He’d never seen a hippopotamus; he had to deal second-hand with eyewitness accounts of the thing, a problem with which many of us concerned with eyewitness interpretations in the criminal justice system are all too familiar. But in his description of the hippo, he as least had a prior framework, although an incredibly bad one: The word hippopotamus, in Greek, means river horse. So, Herodotus confidently described hippos as neighing like horses and as having horses’ manes and tails (Herodotus, ed. 2006).

Now, real hippos don’t have manes, tails, or neighing voices. But for Herodotus, the hippopotamus was a river horse; therefore, cognitively, it was horsey. That was his prior framework. Poor Herodotus stuck to it, to the disdain of future historians.

But Herodotus was human, and humans are governed by human psychology, including prior frameworks for understanding, and when those frameworks are wrong, even for a great historian, bad interpretations ensue.

Poor Herodotus. He also tells us about the griffins, fabulous, winged, lion-bodied beasts, say many ancient sources, that guard gold in central Asia. Now, flying lions with beaks are obviously a poor bet, zoologically, but bits of central Asia contain skeletons of the dinosaur Protoceratops, which had a beak, and which also possessed a bony shield over the neck and shoulders; when collapsed by geological forces, the broken shield looks a hell of a lot like wings. A Protoceratops’ body could be confused with that of a lion if you’re not too particular, and some of the fossil-bearing layers in which these things are found are apparently relatively close to gold-bearing rocks. Somebody (Steppe warrior? Ancient gold prospector?) had apparently made the connection; the story got to Herodotus, and the rest is pseudo-history (Mayor, 2000).

But what about the Cyclops and the mermaids? Well, the ancient Mediterranean has quite a few ancient mammal bones kicking around, including the skulls of prehistoric elephants. If you stand an elephant skull upright, it’s damned hard to tell where the eye orbits are, but the thing you see immediately is the big hole for the trunk, which, if you’re thinking of the skull in human terms, could be construed as an optic cavity in the middle of the lower forehead. So, what you may think you have is the skull of a giant one-eyed human, the Cyclops. This prior framework may have influenced ancient and even medieval witnesses (see Mayor, 2000) to decide that ancient elephants were one-eyed cannibals.

As far as the mermaids go, mariners, at least since the time of Homer, have believed in them. But poor Chris Columbus, sailing into the Caribbean in the belief that he was approaching India (another prior framework problem, by the way), may have actually seen mermaids, although he hastens to add that “they were not as beautiful as they were painted” (Bergreen, 2011).

Poor Columbus. As a seaman, his prior cognitive framework incorporated mermaids, but he didn’t know what a manatee was. If you see these Caribbean sea mammals bobbing in the water, they do, in fact, rather look like humans, although not humans that the average actual human would be likely to ask for a second date. Columbus, the witness, likely interpreted manatees as mermaids, as Herodotus, from witness accounts, interpreted “river horses” as actual horses.

Ancient eyewitnesses do not tell us that the ancient world was rife with creatures from myth. Rather, they tell us that the basic laws of psychology worked in the ancient world as they do in the modern one; prior frameworks for understanding, correct or incorrect, can influence our interpretations. In the modern world, with our extreme dependency on accurate scientific observation and interpretation, these principles of eyewitness forensic psychology may ultimately prove to be of paramount importance.


Bergreen, L. (2011). Columbus: The Four Voyages. New York: Viking.

Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726.

Herodotus (tr. Selincourt, 2006). The Histories. Cambridge: Folio Society.

Mayor, A. (2000). The First Fossil Hunters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton.