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):
OK, awesome, a person buried in an alternate way, that could suggest a third gender! Let's check out the evidence:"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.
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.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.
"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.
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.