Rosemary Joyce Ph.D.

What Makes Us Human


What the "Gay Caveman" Story Doesn't Tell Us About Sexual Variability

"Gay caveman"? Not this time, but there could be...

Posted Apr 16, 2011

It all started innocently enough, with a story in a Czech newspaper.

Grave of Stone Age ‘gender bender' excavated in Prague:
Archaeologists have unearthed a unique late Stone Age grave of a ‘transsexual or gay man' in a suburb of the Czech capital

So the headline read.

The first sentence, quoting the excavators, spoke instead of a "third gender grave", equating that more scholarly-- and thus, apparently, less interpretable-- term immediately to transsexual or gay.

My subsequent post on the story, as well as those of fellow anthropology bloggers Kristina Killgrove and John Hawks, were among a chorus of voices immediately objecting to the media simplification of a story that ultimately reached outlets like CNN, Fox News, and even Time.

For a change, we seemed to make a difference to the coverage. The storyline that dominated in the end was the skepticism of scientists.

And that is a real shame. Because what we were trying to convey was something more than simply rejecting this particular interpretation.

All of the professionals blogging about this agree: we need a professional article to be sure, but we are hesitant about the identification of the biological sex as male. If the biological sex is not male, then the apparent contradiction between the biological sex (male) and the way the person was buried (in a manner previously seen only with females in this 5000 year old culture of eastern Europe) disappears.

So, as many news articles said, we unanimously came down on the "neither gay, nor a caveman" side of the argument.

But what got less well covered is that none of us doubt that there were people at the time whose sexual practices included relations with others whose external genitalia were similar to their own, rather than different.

And quite likely, there were people practing same-sex sexual relations much earlier, in the time period more commonly associated in the popular imagination with "cavemen", the Palaeolithic.

This is the story we would have liked the media to follow up on: what do we know about sex in our early ancestry, and how can we know?

But it's a complicated story that requires attention to the differences between "third gender"-- the term used by the Czech archaeologists-- and gay, between both of these and transsexual, and terms like intersex.

Unlike the general public-- including reporters-- scientists understand that even biological sex is not a simple dichotomy of males and females.

If we want to think about sex at the chromosomal level, in addition to XX and XY individuals there are trichromosomal sexes, differences affecting the expression of sexual morphology, that we can talk about as intersex: rarer than the numerically dominant XX and XY, but decidedly part of our human heritage.

If we want to think about sex as determined by examining skeletal markers, well, all the bioarchaeologists I know use more than two categories, dividing skeletons up into clearly masculine, possibly masculine, uncertain, possibly feminine, and clearly feminine. And that doesn't even take account of the fact that no reputable bioarchaeologist will assign juveniles to a biological sex.

And yes, I know, we can tell dichotomous sex from the pelvis, because the adult female pelvis differs from the adult male pelvis. Except that in elderly women, as the bones of the human skeleton constantly remodel themselves, the pelvis might look more masculine.

So biological sex is not quite as clear as people think it is. Most sexing of skeletons takes place under a two-sex model, in which intersex individuals would have to be assigned along the masculine-feminine distribution, so with current practices, we wouldn't identify third- or fourth- chromosomal sexes (intersex).

But even if did use methods, such as DNA analyses, to unambiguously identify the chromosomal sex of each individual in a past population, that would not tell us their gender, and it would not let us infer their sexual practices.

"Third gender", the term used by the Czech archaeologists, exists because ethnography and historical documents show that the two sex/two gender system is not universal, or even actually a good description of western European societies that treat it as "natural" today. In teaching, I use Native American societies as examples; others use Siberian societies, including to "queer" cultures ancestral to the European burial that sparked the recent hype.

These societies formally recognize multiple genders, not just two, often on the basis of inherent characteristics of the kind of person and expectations of the kind of adult life they might have.

For the Chumash of southern California, for example, the 'aqi included people a rigid two sex model would classify as male and female based on genitalia. But in Chumash society 'aqi were a third category, so charged with being the undertakers who buried the dead due to their relation with the supernatural.

The Chumash example is especially pertinent because Sandra Holliman has identified examples of likely third gender individuals in Chumash cemeteries. Her work gives us a model of how to identify third genders: a combination of a burial pattern not like that of others with the same apparent biological sex; and evidence from traits of the skeleton for habitual activities consistent with those known for the third gender. Both of these characteristics differentiated the two young men she identified as possible 'aqi.

Now we get to the heart of the question of sexuality: a third gender is not a sexuality. In Native North America these people varied widely in sexual practices, some having sex with people with similar genitalia, some with people of opposite genital type, and some with both similar and different genital types.

We cannot assume a third gender person is automatically taking the part in sex of the second gender he or she most closely resembles culturally.

This is the hardest thing to get across to people steeped in the sexual politics of the 20th and 21st century. The whole language of gay and straight is based on the idea of correspondence: that there are two natural biological sexes, and that normally, sex is undertaken by a mixed pair. Sex between individuals whose genitalia is similar then becomes an inversion, a transgression, a violation of what is normal or natural.

Historical sources and ethnographies demonstrate, and archaeologists interested in the past of sex and gender now take for granted, that this is an ideologically charged model that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Europe and European-derived societies.

An alternative perspective would hold that sexual desire and sexual practices are not so easily limited and categorized. Archaeologists can recognize depictions of sexual acts, and even objects used as sexual aids. These suggest a long history and variety of sexual practices.

In some times and places, sexual desires and practices involving people with similar external genitalia were not censured, at others these acts and desires were even celebrated. But the terms used cannot be equated with our modern vocabulary and the ideology that structures it.

What most jolted me about the Gay Caveman story was the anachronistic use of "gay", which must be seen as part of the modern European two sex/two gender correspondence model.

The problem isn't that I doubt there were people engaged in sex with others of all kinds, whether in Chalcolithic Czechoslovakia, or Palaeolithic Europe. I am sure there were, not that burial patterns or biological sexing will tell us so.

What we need is something much more radical; a queering of the terms, so that asking the question this way simply no longer is possible.

Were there gay cavemen? no, because the Palaeolithic is not here and now, and "gay" is a word of the here and now.

Where there cavemen sleeping with other cavemen? Quite likely. We don't have to have a burial labeled "gay" to assume this.

As anthropologists, we look to our closest primate relatives when we want a reality check about "natural" possibilities. For bonobos, our closest relatives, as for us, sexuality is something enjoyable that creates ties of intimacy and sociality, without being limited to pairs of opposite genital sex.

Burials won't tell us about sexual practices, desire, or the way these were experienced. For that, we need to open our models up and free them from what has come to be taken as so natural that the only way reporters could understand a possible third-gender burial was to equate it with modern sexual ideologies. There, anthropological bloggers did not, quite, get our point across. But we will keep trying.