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.

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  • Chelsea

    I get that they’re still doing a lot of research with this discovery, but I think they should be careful conflating being trans to being a third gender. Those can be separate categories. A person who we’d recognize as biologically male but who lived as a female, might just be a (trans) female, and not a third gender shaman or whatever.

  • Codswallop

    I addressed this in the comments of the other article, but here goes again.

    Who said the skeleton is male? The anthropologists who FOUND the goddamn thing, who are looking right at it, out actually WORKING IN THE FIELD instead of sitting at their computers bitching about how they can’t see the pictures the working anthropologists took good enough to make their own determination. You want to make the determination? Then do the work. Unless you have evidence of past shoddy scholarship on the part of those anthropologists there is no reason to doubt their conclusions about the sex of that skeleton, especially from the comfort of your desk chair. Capiche?

    And if you accept the premise that the anthropologists who were skilled enough to FIND the skeleton in the first place are also skilled enough to determine that it’s male, then you’re left with a male skeleton buried with an assortment of female-associated funerary items. Then the question is what does that combination means. Was he gay or transgender? Just a particularly skilled potter? We’re unlikely to ever know with certainty because they didn’t leave records. There isn’t going to be a tablet in there that says, “Here lie Ogg. He suck dick.” So any conclusions about its meaning is necessarily going to be guesswork. But it’s educated guesswork based on what has been observed before, accepted conclusions and scholarship from other, similar sites. Much of what we “know” about prehistoric man is educated guesses because they didn’t leave records behind, which is why it’s called pre-history.

    And the supposition that this skeleton represents a homosexual primitive man isn’t an unreasonable conclusion to make, something so far out of left field it’s ridiculous. We do after all know of other cultures where homosexual men adopted the dress and duties of women and partnered with other men.

    In any case it’s probably a mistake to assign modern terms like transgender, transvestite, transsexual, gay, etc. to a prehistoric tribe or person. It’s unlikely their understanding of sexuality and gender coincides with our own so our terms might not fit. Even in situations where we DO know that some men took on the duties and clothing of women we don’t know if they perceived themselves to be “a woman in a man’s body” or if they were homosexual and adopted the clothing because it was expected of them in that culture. (And in some cases it wasn’t a choice. Apparently some young men were chosen to be raised as “third gender” for sexual purposes or to perform certain duties.)

    Why do I care about this story and the criticism of it? Mainly because it pisses me off when desk-jockeys step in on their BLOGS to throw spit-balls at people who are actually doing the work. If you want to control how discoveries are presented and received, then sign onto the project and do the work yourself instead of whining that the pictures they took are clear enough for your high standards of desk-chair scholarship.

    I also care because even though we’re unlikely to ever know with any certainty that this is a “gay caveman” (a term invented by newspaper reporters, not the anthropologists), the public perception that a “gay caveman” has been found is politically useful for the modern gay community. Approved of or condemned, homosexuality has existed in all know human civilizations and there is every reason to believe it existed in prehistoric tribes and communities too. Whether or not THIS particular skeleton was once a homosexual man we know that such people did exist and wide dissemination of the “gay caveman” story reinforces the idea to the general public that homosexuality has always been part of the human condition, that homosexuality PRE-DATES the religions that condemn it. And that’s important.

    So I would suggest to these armchair experts who aren’t there holding these artifacts in their hands that maybe they should STFU until they can examine these artifacts and the accompanying scholarship before insisting they know better. If you think THEIR conclusions from the field are unreasonable, what do you call YOUR conclusions based on nothing more than a single photograph and newspaper stories written by reporters with no anthropological training? If their conclusions are half-baked, your cake-mix of conclusions aren’t even out of the box yet.

  • Devon

    Have they considered that maybe he just pissed someone off so they buried him like a woman as a sort of post-mortem “fuck you”?

  • Nat


    “Why do I care about this story and the criticism of it? Mainly because it pisses me off when desk-jockeys step in on their BLOGS to throw spit-balls at people who are actually doing the work. If you want to control how discoveries are presented and received, then sign onto the project and do the work yourself instead of whining that the pictures they took are clear enough for your high standards of desk-chair scholarship.”

    You know what pisses me off?

    Scientists who subvert the underlying meaning of their profession by instantly jumping to conclusions with next to no evidence.

    If you’re going to make a sensationalistic claim – and the team here was as guilty as the press itself in hyping up things – then you’re going to incur criticism from people who, you know, are actually careful and diligent in their conclusions and want to see a little more.

  • Codswallop

    @Nat: But you don’t really have a clue what evidence they actually have, do you? It seems to me you’re basing your own opinions about their scholarship on a short sensationalist newspaper article so are hardly in a position to criticize anyone for a rush to judgment.

  • greenmanTN

    We know, or at least have every reason to believe based on our knowledge of human history and animal behavior, that there were “gay cavemen” (or Bronze Age, or whatever). The problem is that if you insist on irrefutable proof that a grave like this contains such a person it might be an unfair burden of proof to meet. No evidence will ever meet that criteria yet much of what we claim to “know” about prehistoric man (and woman) is really just educated guesses based on similar, incomplete evidence. For instance, it’s often taught that cave paintings of animals were intended to guarantee a successful hunt. Or they’re in honor of a successful hunt. But we don’t KNOW that. It’s just a reasonable guess and that’s all it ever can be.

    So why such an uproar over speculation that a male skeleton (accepting these anthropologists know a male skeleton when they find one, as they’re trained to do) buried in a grave with funerary items associated with females, placed the way female dead were in this culture, might have been homosexual? Why demand absolute proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” in this instance but not in others? No one seemed to doubt these anthropologists’ ability to “sex” skeletons when it came to their claim that all males were buried facing one direction and women facing another, but they make the claim they’ve found a male buried in a female manner and all the sudden they don’t know what the hell they’re doing? That’s…interesting.

  • Moo

    “These estimates aren’t exact.” I guess that’s why they’re call estimates.

  • Oprah

    Why is the body burried in a fetal position as opposed to a flat out vertical stretch? If they respected burial rituals so much, the person should have been buried laying on his back, straight up. Fetal position tells me it is submissive, it is a painful position, and you know not exactly relaxed. Perhaps more forensic investigation should be done. Can i help? LOL

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