This new article, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (click on title screenshot below), floats an idea that in principle is interesting, but in practice breaks down in both theory and practice. And that idea is this: one can determine the degree of “non-binary” genders in ancient societies by examining their graves.
One can, with a fair (but not complete) degree of accuracy, determine the sex of a skeleton, using either its pelvis, its head, or a combination of features. You then look at a bunch of European graves from the Early Neolithic through the Late Bronze Age (ca 7500 to 3200 years ago), and see if the sex of the skeleton comports with the “grave goods” buried along with it. Some grave goods—especially weapons—suggest that the individual buried was of male gender, while others, like hair ornaments, beads, or needles, suggest that the associated skeleton was of female gender. You then correlated the biological sex of the individuals with the individuals’ “gender” as indicated by the grave goods. The proportion of “mismatches” among total graves is said to show the degree of “non-binary” people in the local society.
Pape and Ialongo’s “binary” hypothesis is that gender will match sex nearly all of the time, while the alternative is that there will be an appreciable number of mismatches. Of course, for most graves we lack both types of information or one type of information: either the identified biological sex or grave-good gender.
This hypothesis got a lot of attention a while back with reports of sex-determined female skeletons associated with weapons, in particular the publication in 2017 of a 1000-year-old Viking grave whose occupant was a female (determined by bone DNA and therefore accurate). But she was named the “Birka female Viking warrior” because her body was associated with “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion”. A female skeleton with male “grave-goods”!
Here’s the grave (sketch from Wikipedia):
This gave rise to speculations that women were often warriors in Viking times, like Xena, Wonder Woman, or the women in Wakanda; and heartened feminists and those who appreciate women behaving out of their “gender roles”. Some have even suggested that the Birka warrior was a trans man.
Unfortunately, as both Wikipedia and Science noted (see other criticisms here), we can’t at all be sure of this conclusion, and there are now enough doubts from scholars to cast the “woman Viking warrior” hypothesis in doubt. Perhaps she was not a warrior but was buried like one—she might have been a leader. Or she could have been a very rare exception, a Viking “tomboy” who, like Joan of Arc, liked to fight. We’ll probably never know the answer, but given that the skeleton was definitely XX, the woman-warrior theory can’t be definitively be ruled out—nor can it be ruled in.
At any rate, click to read the article, and note the first three words of the title:
The authors do accept a biological definition of sex and a “social-construct” definition of “gender,” though they admit that some of their colleagues also regard sex as a social construct, in which case this study would have no meaning,
The authors attempted sex and gender matching in 1252 individuals taken from 7 European sites. (The study was based on previously published data, not the authors’ own measurements or observations.) Because of the difficulties of identifying sex in young skeletons, and the imperfect accuracy of knowing sex from skeletal morphology—that was judged from different studies matching DNA with bones—they got data on 297-299 individuals, or about 24% of the skeletons. Before we look at the results, let’s note a few problems with this analysis (to be sure, the authors are aware of these):
a.) The errors in determining sex from skeletons. The authors note that, from other studies, a pelvis can diagnose sex with 85%-99% accuracy, while a skull with mandibles gives a 70-90% accuracy. Thus some of the data may be polluted by inaccurate sex determination.
b.) Some grave goods may not indicate sex. Weapons, the authors argue, are always indicators of a male skeleton (as are animal teeth or boar tusks), but what about ceramic vessels, beads, and wire? Those are always taken to indicate females, but we have no strong assurance of this, though items like hair spirals and needles are likely to indicate women. But what if a buried male didn’t have a weapon? Would they put one in the grave anyway?
c.) Grave goods may have gotten mixed up among burial sites.
d.) Even if a weapon in a female grave indicates that she was some kind of warrior, does that mean she was “nonbinary”? That term has various meanings, today usually a person who identifies as both male and female, sometimes fluctuating over time. Does a woman who carried a weapon fit this description because “fighting” is a man’s role? Does that mean that Joan of Arc, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird were “nonbinary”? Did they identify as such? (I doubt it.) I’m not so sure about using that term (as we’ll see below, there’s some ideology lurking in this analysis). Are tomboys or effeminate men considered “nonbinary”? I haven’t seen them described that way.
But of course the biggest problem above is a): misidentification of the sex of skeletons, as the earlier publications didn’t use DNA. If the proportion of mismatches is close to the proportion of misidentified skeletons (as it seems to be), then the “nonbinary” individuals could simply be identification errors.
So let’s see what the authors found (they used old versus “new” data differing in re-analysis of “bone sex”):
Match of sex and gender: 26.5% or 27.2% of the total sample
Mismatch of sex and gender (“non-binary”): 2.9% or 2.2% of the total sample
The rest of the data had either no determination of both sex or gender, or determination of only one.
Thus, of all the doubly-identified individuals, between 8% and 10% of them were “non-binary”. Given the error rates for misidentifying sex using bones, this is within the error range, and so the “discordant” identifications could simply represent misidentifications of sex. The authors do recognize this:
The general results of our analysis seem to support traditional models: if one singles out the cases for which we have both sex and gender determinations (based roughly on one-third of the total sample, mostly adults: Fig. 5), the association pattern appears overwhelmingly binary, with 90.0 per cent (or 92.6 per cent considering the new data) of burials showing matching sex and gender indicators (Fig. 6). Finally, we can also observe that for 10.0 per cent (or c. 7.4 per cent based on the new osteological data) of this portion of deceased individuals the osteological and archaeological determinations contradict each other.
But they still hold out for a possible “non-binary” explanation (my emphasis):
There are two possible ways to interpret this portion: a minimalist approach—in line with the usual procedures—would suggest interpreting it as a product of the error margins of determination methods; as an alternative, one could acknowledge that non-binary minorities were systematically represented in the burial rite of prehistoric Europe. . .
. . . We conclude that available data—despite potential biases—support the hypothesis that some degree of gender variance was formally accepted in the burial rite of prehistoric Central European societies. However, the error margins of traditional methods of sex determination cannot be accurately quantified, hence the actual size of the ‘non-binary minority’ is still largely uncertain.
The authors are tenacious in saying that there was “gender variance” in these early societies, despite the fact that there’s no good basis for that conclusion. And yes, there possibly were a few nonbinary individuals in these populations, though I don’t think you can judge them from this kind of analysis. To be “non-binary”, at least in the modern sense, you have to identify yourself as being both male and female, or fluctuating between them; you can’t just be recognized by your society as “man-like” if you’re a woman or vice versa.
To be conservative, I’d say that it’s most likely that the exceptions were errors in determination, though of course we do have examples of non-binary people from many modern societies. But we can’t go back to the Bronze Age and figure out what was going on. Perhaps historians know something about this.
But there’s one aspect of this paper suggesting that the research was motivated at least in part by ideology. And that’s the authors’ determination of whether the mismatches were “exceptions” or “minorities”: to me a distinction without a difference. Here’s how they define them early in the paper:
The question is what these exceptional cases actually represent: are they exceptions or minorities? The difference is crucial, as it defines the very possibility that we will ever be able to understand what these cases actually mean. From an archaeological point of view, we will never be able to understand exceptions: by definition, an exception is something that occurs so rarely that it does not provide enough statistical evidence. By the same token, as far as the perception of a certain social phenomenon is concerned, exceptions escape classification, hence they are difficult to frame within one’s world view. Minorities, on the other hand, are recurrent. No matter how small, a minority will always provide enough data to be singled out from the statistical norm and modelled consequently. Similarly, in the social domain a minority can be acknowledged by laws and explicitly assigned rights and duties.
Clearly, if you find one just mismatch (and it’s real) then it is an “exception”. But what about three, five, ten, or twenty? Are they “exceptions” or “minorities”? (Their claim that “exceptions are so rare that they do not provide enough statistical evidence”. But evidence for what?)
The authors consider the distinction between “exceptions” and “minorities” very important because while exceptions don’t have “rights and duties”, or are protected by law, “minorities” have those features. But there is no cutoff given between “minorities” and “exceptions”! This is very weird but it gives you a sense of the ideology lurking behind this research.
In point of fact, in modern society there’s no difference between “minorities” and “exceptions”: those whose gender doesn’t comport with their biological sex deserve exactly the same rights and protections as others—with a few exceptions like sports, prison occupancy, etc.—regardless of how common or uncommon they are.
The mask slips when the authors put this paragraph near the end of the paper:
Framing this divergence from the statistical norm as minority rather than exception helps understand its potential relevance. While an exception would be limited to a single person that is different from others—someone that is not included, and in a way unpredictable—a minority can be formally acknowledged, protected and even revered.
Revered? And can’t you acknowledge those who don’t conform to the norm no matter how rare they are?
Note that in the first paragraph above they say “exceptions” may not be one-offs but simply “sufficiently rare”, while right above they say they are “single persons”. The authors can’t seem to make up their minds.
At any rate, the last paragraph suggests—and here I’m guessing—that the authors thought that if they found an appreciably high number of discrepancies between skeletal sex and grave-good gender, that would somehow validate and revere transgender people in society. (Note that homosexuals are neither “trangender” nor “non-binary”.) But the connection between frequency and rights is nonexistent. If murderers constituted 10% rather than a much smaller fraction of Americans, that would not give them any more rights, even if you think (as I do as a determinist) that murderers never have a choice about whether they kill someone.
At any rate, this is the kind of mishigass you can get yourself into when you try to use archeological data to justify modern social norms. Again, I’m just guessing, for the ideology is well hidden in this paper, but I think this is the basis for the whole analysis. And it also depends on the reader accepting that a person whose biological sex didn’t match their grave goods must have been “non-binary”.