Over the weekend, the debate over the ‘gay caveman’ has raged on with various archaeologists and paleoanthropologists speaking out against the media hype. Here is how the argument began. During a press conference in Prague, Czech archaeologists discussed an unusual burial from the Corded Ware culture, dating from 2800-2500 BCE. Katerina Semradova, one of the archaeologists, stated that “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”. Fellow archaeologist Kamila Vesinova argued that “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… [it is] far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual”.
It was these simple statements that led to a media frenzy over the appearance of a ‘gay caveman’. The argument posed by archaeologists was oversimplified and reduced into a single sound bite. Articles were published in all formats of online and print media, discussing how the cavemen was ‘outed’ by his village given his burial (Daily Mail 2011).
What is overlooked and minimized is that Semradova also states that burials in this culture were a reflection of social standing rather than sexual preference. She notes that shamans were buried in this same position but usually had richer grave goods. Lack of extensive goods does argue for this individual being biologically male but buried in the feminine way- the possibility of the status of shaman may be equally likely when grave robbing and individual choice in burial are considered.
When looking at burials in the past, it is important for us not to interpret them as if they were part of our own culture- but rather to consider the wide range of meaning that could be derived from the burial type and how the culture was most likely to have viewed the individual. Sex does not equal gender. Sex is a biological dichotomy of male or female. Gender is a socially constructed identity. In the majority of Western cultures, gender is seen as a dichotomy of feminine and masculine, and is usually assigned to correlate with biological sex of female and male, respectively. This pattern is not a human universal and we cannot make assumptions that sex will correlate with gender, or that gender is even a meaningful category in other cultures. We need to consider status or occupation as factors rather than sexual preference. Perhaps this society was not divided by sex or gender, but rather by vocation with most males ending up as a warrior and most females in more domestic roles- but still allowing for flexibility between them.
Weglian (2001) was faced with a similar archaeological paradox in a Bronze age site from Singen, Germany dating from 2300-1700 BCE. The burials displayed a similar pattern to those from the Czech Republic. All burials at Singen are aligned north to south facing east. Biological females are buried on their right side and biological males are buried on their left side. Only two burials of the entire cemetery are buried contrary to this dichotomy. One of these consisted of a burial of an aged male who was in the right sided ‘female’ position. The other is a young adult female buried in the left sided ‘male’ position. Weglian argues that when looking at gender in mortuary contexts it is important not to be biased by Western dichotomous conceptions of a two gendered system. A number of cultures don’t acknowledge gender, or are on a three-gendered system. There also needs to be a consideration of age, in some cultures older individuals become genderless, or occupation, where individuals such as Vikings were classified as warrior or non-warrior. Weglian’s argument serves as a good comparison, and warning, when we are interpreting the ‘gay caveman’.
It must also be understood that available cemetery data today makes up a miniscule proportion of the actual living community. As more information becomes available, these patterns of burial may change completely. The pattern within the Corded Ware culture in the Czech Republic is interesting, and warrants future study to determine the true meaning of the mortuary practices.
P.S. Also not a caveman. He’s from the early Bronze Age.
For other great posts addressing the ‘gay caveman’ check out Kristina Killgrove’s post Gay Caveman! ZOMFG! which addresses the problems the media has had with conflating sex and gender, or John Hawk’s post The Gay Caveman which, in bold, states “Dudes! I could be wrong, but I think that to have a “gay caveman”, you need a skeleton that is both gay and a caveman. And this ain’t either!”
Wilson 2011. Scientists speak out to discredit ‘gay caveman’. CNN World. http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/04/10/czech.republic.unusual.burial/index.html?hpt=T2
Weglian 2001. Grave Goods Do Not Gender Make: Case Study from Singen, Germany. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Arnold and Wicker, eds. CA: Altamira.