Archaeologists in Prague say they've uncovered a Stone-Age man buried in a position usually reserved for women — but media claims of a "gay caveman" may be exaggerated, according to some researchers.
The skeleton, which dates back to about 2,500 to 2,800 B.C., was found in the outskirts of Prague. The culture the man belonged to (known as the Corded Ware culture for their pottery decorated with the impressions of twisted cord) was very finicky about grave rituals, reported Iranian news network Press TV, which visited the excavation site. According to the Czech news website Ceskapozice.cz, Corded Ware males were usually buried on their right sides with their heads facing east. This man, however, was buried on his left with his head facing west — a traditionally female position.
"We found one very specific grave of a man lying in the position of a woman, without gender specific grave goods, neither jewelry or weapons," lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova of the Czech Archaeological Society told Press TV.
Not gay, not a caveman
Vesinova 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. [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]
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, Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist in at the University of North Carolina, wrote 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.
(Transgender is defined as when gender identity doesn't match physical or genetic sex. Third gender is a broader term that covers a wide range of gender identities in a number of cultures, some of whom reject the male-female binary altogether.)
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."
Male or female?
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.
After confirming the gender, the second step would be to determine how many examples of gendered Corded Ware burials there are.
"Is this burial unique out of 20 burials or unique out of 20,000 burials?" Killgrove told LiveScience. "That makes a big difference in interpretation."
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.
The find is intriguing, Dobson said, but there are many possible interpretations still on the table.
"This might be much ado about nothing, or it might be something that tells us something very interesting," Dobson said. "There simply isn't enough data right now to make that statement definitively."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.