the science

That ‘Gay Caveman’ Was Neither Gay Nor A Caveman

When we heard about this 5,000-year-old “gay” caveman skeleton — which was dubbed as being gay because the supposedly male body was buried facing west, like a woman — we immediately assumed the skeleton, if indeed of the LGBT persuasion, was actually trans, not gay. The whole conclusion about the skeleton’s queerness seemed a little suspect to us, but it turns out other scientists, who do this sort of thing for a living, think that way too!

[Kamila Remisova Vesinova, lead architect of the Czech Archaeological Society] and her colleagues told reporters that the man may have belonged to a “third gender.” This designation is for people who may be viewed as neither male nor female or some combination of both. In some cases, third-gender individuals are thought to be able to switch between male and female depending on circumstance. Modern examples include the Hijras of India and the Fa’afafine of Polynesia.

The skeleton has been trumpeted in the media as belonging to a “homosexual caveman,” but some archaeologists are skeptical. For one thing, the complexity of the third-gender concept makes calling the skeleton “gay” an oversimplification, wrote Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., in her blog, Bone Girl. “If this burial represents a transgendered individual (as well it could), that doesn’t necessarily mean the person had a ‘different sexual orientation ‘ and certainly doesn’t mean that he would have considered himself (or that his culture would have considered him) ‘homosexual,'” Killgrove wrote.

[…] Archaeologist Monty Dobson of Drury University in Missouri agreed. “The reality of this is going to be far more complicated than, ‘This individual was gay,'” Dobson told LiveScience. Not only is “gay” an oversimplification, “caveman” is flat-out inaccurate, said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Corded-Ware burials are not ‘caveman’ in age,” Hawks told LiveScience. “We’re talking about pre-Bronze Age farmers.”

Meanwhile, who says the skeleton even belonged to a man?

Hawks said the third-gender claims are difficult to evaluate without a formal archaeological description. “I haven’t seen any evidence that really convinces me that the skeleton is male,” he said. “It could be, but the photo is not convincing on that point, and I have not seen any claim of DNA testing.” It’s tough to assign a sex to a skeleton with certainty, Dobson said. Archaeologists and anthropologists usually rely on bone measurements, particularly the size and shape of the pelvis. But these estimates aren’t exact, Dobson said. “There have been cases in the past where a gender was assigned and we have gone back to look and assigned the opposite gender,” he said. […] Both Killgrove and Dobson said that the grave’s inhabitant could indeed be a third-gender individual. But there are other possibilities as well, they said. Many cultures buried shamans, or people thought to communicate with the spirit world, in unusual or gender-bending ways, Dobson said. But that burial pattern was related to the shaman’s social status, not his or her sexuality.

Even if the skeleton is male, the case for a third gender requires more than a reversal of position and burial goods, Hawk said, pointing to work done by Rosemary Joyce, a University of California, Berkeley, anthropologist who specializes in sex and gender in archaeology. In a blog post about the find, Joyce wrote that third-gender burials should follow their own pattern, not just a reversal of typical male-female patterns.

For instance, if the skeleton was buried in the position of a snow angel, or doing the Elaine dance, archaeologists would have a much more accurate idea of what they’ve discovered.