“Gay Caveman”: Wrecking a perfectly good story

Posted on April 7, 2011

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So, I get up this morning in Paris and do my news search, and immediately I see articles all over the world headlined “Gay Caveman”.

As I write, the most recent being served up is from The West Australian. Not sure but I suspect that is the Austalian equivalent of a really small town newspaper, so clearly, this is archaeo-news reaching the widest possible audience. (See this  version of the story for images).

First, let us dispose of the “caveman”: we are talking about an individual buried ca. 5000 years ago in the Czech Republic. Even though no archaeologist wants to use the term “caveman” for any time or place, surely, the normal broader usage implies Palaeolithic, not Chalcolithic, cultures.

But of course, “caveman” is used here to dramatize a contrast: caveman/gay man. Hulking shambling macho hunter vs. ??

This is sexual stereotyping of the worst kind. But what about the actual archaeology? Are we dealing here with a possible third gender?

Here’s the data, such as it is, courtesy of The West Australian:

The skeleton of the man, found during an excavation in the Czech Republic, was found on his left side with his head facing west, buried with household jugs and no weapons.

An oval-shaped jug was also found near the feet of the skeleton.

During that period, men were traditionally buried with weapons, hammers and flint knives, and their bodies were placed on their right side with the head facing east.

Women were interred with their bodies on the left, head facing west, and buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as domestic jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

What we have here is a mismatch between the biologically determined sex of the person and the archaeologically expected grave goods.

I dislike critiques that begin by challenging the physical anthropology, so I hesitate to start with a caution about the sexing of the skeleton. But just back from the SAA, I must.

We need to know the age and possible lifeway of this individual to avoid what Lori Hager called “the sexism of sexing”. She used as her example a burial at Çatalhöyük of an older woman whose pelvic anatomy had been remodeled and diverged from the expectations for female skeletons.

It would also help to know what criteria are being used to assess sex. In 2000, Chris Meiklejohn and colleagues published a discussion of Mesolithic Europe that noted the difficulty using robusticity, for example, to identify males, as some females were more robust than some males in the samples they examined.

Then there is the question of intersexed individuals– those persons whose chromosomal sex may vary from the dichotomous grid of two sexes that is assumed by the reporters writing about this story, and apparently, by the archaeologists involved as well. Contrast this with the work of Rebecca Storey, who identified a royal burial at Copan as likely a genetically intersexed person.

What these bioarchaeological studies have in common that sets them apart from the current story– at least as reported– is a more realistic understanding of biological sex as not a simple binary male/female, but a complex array of chromosomal variation, and of the body as a register of life-long development that is not reducible to a simple yes/no is he or isn’t he? question.

Like so many other sensationalized archaeology stories, this one began with a press conference, on April 5 (Tuesday) in Prague. Czech news coverage credited the archaeologists with calling the buried individual a “third gender”, with the reporter glossing this as “a transsexual or gay man”. The original story clarifies that the burial was encountered in the city limits of Prague, calling it the “Prague 6 archaeological site”. The press conference was apparently intended to publicize an open house at the site.

While the original article still leaves out the critical details of age, it is notable for being much less problematic than what was made of it in the later press coverage. And it allows us to focus on what the archaeologists were really saying: that, in a cultural milieu where burials normally fall into two groups based on position and grave goods, they have uncovered an anomalous burial.

Leaving aside the biological identification, the individual conforms to the burial practices typical of female burials in both position (laying on its left side, head facing west) and included objects (pottery vessels). This is how archaeologists once expected to identify third genders. But the work of Sandy Holliman, who successfully argues for identification of two burials in a Chumash cemetery as third gender, has shown us not to expect such a simple model. As I summarized her work in Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, Sandy found a

promising avenue of potentially identifying third-gender males, who carried out the same work as most women, by looking at patterns of skeletal deterioration that resulted from repetitive movements. She identified two skeletons of males who died at a young age, whose patterns of spinal arthritis were different from the other male skeletons. Spinal arthritis like this was typical of females. Hollimon explained this skeletal alteration as the result of repeatedly using digging sticks, which placed stress on the spine… Both of the young males with this pattern of alteration were actually buried with digging stick weights. …the same two young men were the only males to have baskets as well. Hollimon noted that these two tools were used by Chumash undertakers, an occupational specialization strongly associated with third gender males. The low frequency of potential third-gender individuals she identified, with two among the burials she studied, was comparable to the frequency ethnographers had reported in their observations of historic California Native American societies.

This study should serve as a model, and what it tells us is not simply to look for a reversal, a kind of cross-sex pattern, but for something that really constitutes a third category. The Czech burial, even if we accept the sexing, does not show a third pattern.

And in that very lack of other differentiation I find the greatest cause to be cautious about what might otherwise be an interesting example, one we could add to other such examples, of burial patterning that challenges the two sex/two gender model.