Iranian news service PressTV reported on April 6 on the discovery of an ancient human burial in a suburb of the Czech capital Prague.
The grave, belonging to the third millennium BCE Corded Ware cultural tradition of Europe, contained the skeletal remains of a person that the archaeologists who uncovered the burial designated as male. Without DNA testing, however, it is impossible to say for sure.
The skeleton was buried in a position previously thought to be exclusively associated with females.
The archaeologists said the position in which the skeleton was buried and the absence of the gender-specific grave goods usually found in Corded Ware graves suggested that it was a man with a gender identity or sexual orientation that fell outside of the heterosexual male/female sphere.
This interpretation generated considerable media interest.
A number of news outlets, including FOX News, the British Daily Mail and Telegraph, and popular Australian media sites Ninemsn.com and News.com.au ran the story under sensationalist headlines “outing” the “first known gay caveman”.
Leaving aside the fact that at 5000 years old, the remains are far too recent to have belonged to a cave-anything, and that Ninemsn staff writers’ description of the man as an “early homo-sapien” (sic) is off by more than 150,000 years, the response by the mainstream media does very little to illuminate readers’ understanding of ancient human societies.
But it does say a great deal about modern prejudices and assumptions about gender and sexuality.
Expanding upon the interview given to PressTV by lead researcher Kamila Remisova Vesinova, it was suggested in a number of reports that the presence of domestic vessels in the grave indicates the man was considered more “effeminate” than other males in the community. This is the origin of the “gay caveman” moniker.
The number of assumptions made by both the media and the Czech archaeologists is astounding.
Apparently, any object associated with the home must be inherently connected to femaleness, despite the fact that pottery vessels were commonly buried with both sexes in the Corded Ware culture.
Biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove wrote in an April 6 Bone Girl blog post: “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.”
It is not uncommon for archaeologists who lack training in human skeletal analysis to use grave goods to “gender” a grave — a practice heavily reliant on the preconceptions of the researcher making the interpretation.
A common result of this strategy is that objects such as swords and spears are assumed to indicate male sex, and jewellery and pots as belonging to women.
This deeply flawed, unscientific methodology can lead to wrong interpretations of the roles played by men and women in past human societies.
A number of previously recorded Corded Ware burials were assigned male or female sex in this way. This calls into question the accuracy of the idea that this culture had burial practices that strictly differentiated between men and women.
Even if the man was deliberately placed in a “female” orientation within the grave, this in itself is not evidence that he identified as homosexual or transgender.
“Buried like a woman” quipped Salon.com blogger Mary Elizabeth Williams on April 8. “That’s so gay!”
Aspects of identity such as age, biological sex, health, occupation, role within the community and social class may be reflected within the grave. But this is not always the case and is often subject to the interpretative bias of the researcher.
Skeletal remains and burial practices can reveal much about a person and the community in which they lived, but these archaeological traces cannot tell us directly what a person thought, how they perceived themselves or what their sexual orientation was.
The actions of the mainstream media in equating “gay man” with “woman”, and conflating “gay” with “transgender”, reveals an understanding of human gender and sexuality so outdated as to be laughable were it not so entrenched.
It reflects an extremely narrow-minded perception of gay men as just more “womanish” versions of their straight counterparts.
As Vesinova and colleagues’ claims have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and so cannot be assessed against the archaeological evidence by their peers in the field, their interpretations are interesting but are hardly the only ones possible. As such, they should be treated cautiously and sceptically.
In cases such as these, researchers have a responsibility to communicate scientific findings in a way that is both clear and accurate. It is unclear is whether Vesinova and her colleagues demonstrate an alarming naivete or deliberate cynicism in dealing with the media.
What is certain is that in a field where research is often chronically underfunded, making pronouncements about “gay skeletons” is a guaranteed way to get one’s project noticed.
Archaeology offers us the opportunity to more fully comprehend past human cultures in all their astonishing variety and complexity.
Misrepresenting new discoveries to reinforce conservative concepts of sexuality and gender makes this understanding much harder to attain.
[Amy McDonell is a PhD candidate in Archaeology at the Australian National University.]