Gay Caveman! ZOMFG!

Seriously, news media. I don't have time to keep creating thoughtful blog posts to counteract your insane sensationalism. It's like the entire first week of this month is April Fool's.

The Telegraph and the Daily Mail are both carrying a "gay caveman" story in typically groan-worthy fashion: "First Homosexual Caveman Found" crows the Telegraph and the Mail insists, "5,000-year-old Is Outed by the Way He Was Buried." What I've learned in the past few months about these two publications specifically is that the important, scientific details are at the very end of the article. So I read the articles backwards to let the evidence sink in before I read the crazy conclusions the journalist reaches.

From the Telegraph (towards the bottom) and from the Mail (very last line):
"We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a 'transsexual' or 'third gender grave' in the Czech Republic," archaeologist Katerina Semradova told a press conference on Tuesday.
OK, awesome, a person buried in an alternate way, that could suggest a third gender! Let's check out the evidence:
According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east.

Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.
The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.
Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.
"What we see here doesn't add up to traditional Corded Ware cultural norms. The grave in Terronska Street in Prague 6 is interred on its left side with the head facing the West. An oval, egg-shaped container usually associated with female burials was also found at the feet of the skeleton. None of the objects that usually accompany male burials - such as weapons, stone battle axes and flint knives - were found in the grave.
Well, I can't say I'm convinced from just this brief report that this was a third-gendered individual. Just because all the burials you've found to date are coded male and female based on grave goods doesn't mean there aren't alternate forms you haven't found and doesn't mean that the alternate form you have found has a lot of significance. But this is not my geographical or temporal specialty, so I'll buy that all of the evidence suggests something other than a shaman (thanks, Telegraph, for defining a shaman as a "latter-day witch doctor;" real helpful). So, neat, a possible third-gendered or transgendered individual.

Let's look back at the titles and at the first few paragraphs, the places the Telegraph and Mail journalists really like to editorialize:
The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.
Differently gendered burial way back in the third millennium BC! Hold it - "caveman" is generally applied to either Neandertals or Cro-Magnon (the first early modern Homo sapiens). And both of those date to about 35,000 years ago. So, no, this person wasn't a caveman. Gotta make myself keep reading...
The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republic with its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.
"From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake," said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.
"Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual," she added.
There is, of course, no reporting on how the archaeologists estimated sex - or even a hint at the fact that sex can only be estimated, never determined conclusively without DNA testing. But assuming that the skeleton appears to be male (hard to tell from the pic), the fact that he was buried not only in a completely different way, but in a way that suggests a difference in gender identity, is incredibly interesting.

Anthropological studies of sex and gender often highlight people of alternate genders, such as the two-spirits (formerly known as berdache) among Native American groups and hjira in South Asia. These well-known trans-gendered individuals typically perform a feminine gender identity. However, it's important to note that biological sex, gender, and the choice of sexual partner are not interchangeable terms, as much as we interchange them in American culture. Most people are born into one of two sexes (male/female), but there are intersexed or third-sex individuals, sometimes people with chromosomal abnormalities. But people are conditioned by culture to perform a gender role (man/woman, masculine/feminine). And people generally choose to engage in sexual intercourse with: someone of the opposite sex (heterosexuality or "straight"), the same sex (homosexuality or "gay"), both sexes (bisexuality), or no one (asexuality).

In the Telegraph and Mail articles, then, all three of these terms are being conflated, sometimes by the archaeologists themselves. 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." Two-spirits, for instance, do engage in sexual acts with biological males, but also with biological females.

So, what we've learned is that this skeleton was neither a caveman nor necessarily gay. (And what I've learned in googling for "gay caveman" is that there was apparently a rumor that Oetzi was gay.) I'd really appreciate it if tomorrow's news doesn't bring me a similarly anachronistic and anthropological-poor headline like, "Joan of Arc a Slut: Her Coccyx Tells the Tale of Too Much Tail."

Updates (4/7/11) - John Hawks also covers this on his blog, and Stephanie Pappas, a reporter for LiveScience, talks to me, Hawks, Joyce, and others about the overblown media coverage. It seems the original report/interview with the archaeologist (which you can see here) was completely taken out of context.

And here I'll point the interested reader at Rosemary Joyce's summary of the "Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology" session at the SAAs last week, which unfortunately I could not attend. This topic has grown in complexity in the past decade, and any bioarchaeologist who thinks she's found a differently gendered burial would do well to read up on the literature. And a link to Joyce's take on the story.

Updates (4/9/11) - Some other journalists and bloggers have taken on the media hype and written awesome pieces. My favorites are by Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon and Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel. The "archaeologists react" story has also been covered in several other languages, including: Polish, Indonesian, German, Dutch, French, and what google translate tells me is Han Chinese.

Update (4/10/11) - CNN interviewed me and John Hawks about the media hype around the find, and the write-up can be found here.

Update (4/15/11) - Interesting piece by Eric M. Johnson in Wired (which also refers to Oetzi) that goes into more depth than Joyce's post about what "third gender" actually means and ethnographic examples thereof.

Update (4/16/11) - A fleshed-out article in Psychology Today by Rosemary Joyce on what she thinks the media should have focused on.

Update (5/9/11) - A few weeks back, a gay caveman character appeared on the show Chelsea Lately. He's got a Twitter account (@Real_GayCaveman) and occasionally posts "back in my day..." statuses. The odd thing? He defines his time period specifically as 2 BC. So, you know, the time when Romans had indoor plumbing... caveman times.


Raymond Vagell said…
Ugh ... thank you for writing this. The moment I saw the news article, it got me so infuriated but then I was like ... OK fine it's Daily Mail but the public NEEDS TO BE EDUCATED. /rageface

Not only was the term "Gay Cavemen" wrong and inappropriate, calling someone "gay" because he was buried like a female is like saying that all male homosexuals (sexual orientation) are females (biological sex). Totally different.

I was hoping to track down (to no avail) the official press release or publication of this discovery, hoping that Telegraph and Daily Mail are just trying to use the thesaurus to churn out fancy words (like using the word ape and monkey interchangeably).
I feel like the Daily Mail is always trolling me, but this story is freaking *everywhere* this morning. I am considering collecting headlines - they speak volumes about our society - like "Oldest Gay in the Village" and "Stone Age Gender Bender." Ugh.
Anonymous said…
Regarding this line:
"There is, of course, no reporting on how the archaeologists estimated sex - or even a hint at the fact that sex can only be estimated, never determined conclusively without DNA testing."

There is a distinct sexual dimorphism in the human skeleton, most prominently seen in the shape of the pelvic bones (Men have taller, narrower hips than women), so it is entirely possible to determine the sex of a skeleton without DNA testing.
There is indeed sexual dimorphism between males and females in most human populations. And you're right that that dimorphism manifests in the pelvis and the skull, most notably. But, humans are not as sexually dimorphic as, say, gorillas.

Statistically, the best we can do when assessing sex from visual (sometimes called anthroposcopic) traits is about 95% - if the ventral arc of the pubic symphysis is present. Which means that, on averagem 1 time out of 20, even with the best anthroposcopic trait, a trained osteologist will misidentify the biological sex of a skeleton.

Some osteologists use the phrase "determine sex" because they feel that a combination of traits allows them to more or less conclude the biological sex of an individual from his or her skeleton. But many of us use "estimating sex" because of the uncertainty in sex identification from the appearance of the skeleton alone.

The only way to know conclusively if a person was male or female is through DNA analysis. (As far as I know. I'm always learning more, as are all researchers.)
Mamie said…
Excellent analysis of some of the assumptions made by the press, but I'm afraid I disagree with your statement that the archaeologists' sex estimation should be doubted because it's not a DNA analysis. While I would also like to see closer pics of the skeleton and/or the archaeologists' report to gauge for myself the accuracy of the sex estimation, to recommend destructive analysis on the mistaken assumption that we'll then know the sex "conclusively" is a pet peeve for me.

Experienced investigators correctly sort crania alone by sex 80 - 90% of the time, while the Phenice method of sexing the os pubis can reach 96 - 100% accuracy (though not all users/populations achieve this accuracy). Sutherland and Suchey sorted specimens by sex 96% accurately using just the ventral arc (all accuracy rates summarized in TD White, Human Osteology 2nd Ed).

While the amelogenin method for DNA sexing described by Stone et al. 1996 (AJPA 99:231) achieved 95 - 100% accuracy (95% in the archaeological specimens, 100% in modern) -- overlapping the range for nondestructive visual methods, so perhaps no more conclusive than estimation from the skeleton -- they recommend this costly, destructive analysis is best used in such cases as sexing juveniles, incomplete remains and adults with ambiguous morphology.

From the picture, this may indeed be an individual with ambiguous morphology. But when one also considers that ancient DNA is often subjected to insufficient rigor in publishing -- it's not required that gel photos be published showing an extraction blank alongside each sample with every analysis, for example -- the technique becomes even less attractive. YMMV, but to me, the chance to independently assess the morphological sex estimation through photos would be far more valuable than a DNA analysis, which, after all, may not even work.

While the media coverage does not pick up on it (big shock, right?), the interpretation of the individual as gendered differently from his skeletal sex was not made in a vacuum ("Just because all the burials you've found to date are coded male and female ... doesn't mean there aren't alternate forms") -- there ARE multiple graves from this culture with sex-atypical burial (e.g.,, found in a quick Google search). I understand from my husband, a bioarchaeologist who has read extensively about prehistoric Europe, that around 10% of corded ware burials are sex-atypical. There may be more that haven't been ID'd yet, due to older European excavations sexing by grave goods rather than skeletal morphology.

Sure, they could be shamans, or incorrectly sexed, and these should be considered (and probably were, as I'd prefer to assume that it is the journalists rather than the archaeologists who are irresponsible here). But to assume that the hypothesis this individual was incorrectly sexed was not appropriately tested and discarded before coming to the conclusions described in the article is not giving the archaeologists credit for being remotely professional. And to imply that someone buried sex-atypically should first be assumed magical ("I'll buy that ... the evidence suggests something other than a shaman") rather than third-gendered, transgendered or intersexed is perhaps to cling inappropriately to old modes of interpretation that elide the existence of these latter categories and their experience in the prehistoric world.

I agree that appropriate care should be taken in ANY archaeological interpretation, not just of gender identity. But I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to fault the researchers, only the media.

Thanks for this write-up -- a nice look at some of the more head-exploding aspects of the media coverage!
Anonymous said…
Now what I really want to know is why no one's pointed out that even 'being gay' is a novel, culturally-specific construct that had its start in Europe only 150 years ago. (See. e.g. Jonathon Katz's 1996 _The Invention of Heterosexuality_). The casual references to a 'gay cavemen' when even 'gay medieval man' is an impossible label is just astonishing.
@Anonymous - Good point. In my interview with LiveScience, I did mention that the "gay" label is anachronistic: "Second, as I noted on my blog, "gay" is incredibly reductionist. We use the term as shorthand in our society for a complex array of biological and cultural attributes. Third-gendered people cross-culturally don't identify with one specific sexual orientation. But also, calling this person "gay" is anachronistic. Even if this person was buried in a way that suggests a different gender, it doesn't mean his behavior in life would have conformed to our modern notion of homosexuality."
Adam Gonnerman said…
Thanks for sharing your good sense and clear thinking on this story.
Thanks for your thorough comment, Mamie. I agree that destructive analysis of ancient remains shouldn't be taken lightly. But in this case, one of the primary facts upon which the identification of a third-gendered individual rests is the sex of that skeleton. I personally wouldn't publish (and yes, I know this is not published work) claims of a differently gendered individual without doing everything possible to determine biological sex. Of course DNA analysis can fail, but the best way of arriving at sex is through multiple methods (just as the best way of arriving at age is through multiple methods). I'd like to take a closer look at this skeleton; that sciatic notch looks pretty wide to me, but as you note, we can't see or evaluate the pubic symphysis, the best anthroposcopic trait we have.

And I didn't mean to necessarily imply that the archaeologists are not good at their job. They likely didn't realize the firestorm that would arise from a seemingly local news blurb. And the Telegraph and Daily Mail seem to have taken something out of context: the archaeologists clearly say that there is *no* evidence of gendered objects, not that the pots indicate feminine gender. The different burial of this individual is incredibly interesting, and I assume the archaeologists have learned that throwing around terms like transgender, third gender, and sexual orientation is a bad idea without something to back it up. I'm looking forward to reading more about this burial, hopefully a publication.

I wasn't assuming that someone buried atypically should first be considered magical. I was reacting to the (conveyed) fact that the atypical burials found to date were either shamans or female warriors. I don't have enough information to know whether or not the individual's burial style fits in with that of a shaman or not. What I think is most interesting here is that a female skeleton found with things typical of men becomes a powerful warrior, whereas a male skeleton found with things typical of women becomes gay. Archaeologists have a long history of applying anachronistic ideas of sex, gender, and sexual orientation to peoples of the past (as you rightly point out), and it's clear that the news media at least (and possibly some archaeologists as well) cling to this idea that performing a masculine gender is good and performing a feminine gender is bad or pathological.

Anyway, again, really appreciate your comment. I should cite my posts more, but I didn't realize any other osteo geeks would be quoting the statistics of the Phenice method at me. :)
Jutta Zalud said…
> If this burial represents a transgendered individual (as well it could), that doesn't necessarily mean the person had a "different sexual orientation"

I slightly disagree on this point. Transgendererd persons nearly always challenge the homo/hetero-divide, at least when pre-op. A pre-op MTF-transgender who is in a sexual relation with a man will problably think of herself as straight/heterosexual, but be considered gay/homosexual by outsiders (maybe even by her partner). Kate Bornstein has an eye-opening chapter in her book Gender Outlaw on how she and her longtime partner both underwent gender-reassignments and how their relationship would be considered as gay, heterosexual or lesbian in the various stages,
I appreciate your comment, Jutta, and you certainly have a very good point. As you say, a relationship with a transgendered person may be considered heterosexual or homosexual. These definitions (and you can correct me if I'm wrong) are most often labels applied by outsiders to the relationship.

I probably should have clarified that the burial, if it was of a transgendered or third-gender individual doesn't necessarily mean the person was viewed as having a different sexual orientation. It's difficult to understand the nuances of gender in the archaeological record, and much more difficult to understand the nuances of sexual orientation in a past culture. But that's not to say that my colleagues and I shouldn't try!
Stefanie said…
Incredible! Your blog never ceases to amaze me (in a good way!). After someone emailed the National Post's (a Canadian Newspaper) article on this media craze to me for probably the 15th time I decided to whip over here to see if you had posted about it on your blog. Sure enough, you've posted about it and I'd say 90% of what you said (minus the osteological stuff, since I'm just a Social Historian/Classicist) sounds much like the responses I sent out to all my well meaning friends, family, and colleagues that thought I might find this media craze useful to my own research. My own work focuses on hermaphroditism and transgenderism in the ancient world (Greek & Roman) so I tend to have a full inbox whenever a news story related to such individuals finds its way into the hands of my friends (I had an email almost daily for months during the Caster Semenya media craze).

Love your blog!
Should you be interested, I'll try to find out what the authors actually published, being a native and knowhing the few institutions that do research and stuff. There was a buzz here, too, and I remember an interview with one of the archeologists that sounded much more reasonable than what leaked to the foreign news.
Thanks, Liisa. I'd love to get an update on this. I didn't follow up to see if/how the media storm affected Vesinova and the other archaeologists involved in the project. The English interview of her that I saw wasn't the best, but it was clear she was trying to explain the differently buried person. So if you read anything more about this, do let me know!
Crissa said…
Not even DNA will be conclusive, as that isn't a 100% co-incidence. In-vtro changes can produce an individual with androgen sensitivity or insensitivity, which would then develop into someone with a bone structure more like the sex opposite their DNA.

In other words, without asking them, you still probably don't know.
Crissa said…
(Admittedly, I'm meaning one in thousands instead of one in a hundred)