An attempt, using skeletons and grave goods, to see if gender was “nonbinary” in ancient European cultures

May 28, 2023 • 9:30 am

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”.

h/t: Gavin

38 thoughts on “An attempt, using skeletons and grave goods, to see if gender was “nonbinary” in ancient European cultures

  1. Interesting article on using graves to determine non-binary genders in ancient societies, but it seems to suffer from both theoretical and practical problems. While the authors suggest that some degree of gender variance was formally accepted in prehistoric Central European societies, the study’s accuracy is unclear due to potential misidentification of sex using skeletal morphology. The authors’ determination to distinguish between “exceptions” and “minorities” also appears to have an ideological motivation.
    founder of balance thy life

      1. Pretty sure this is just AI-generated spam. Might not be worth giving comments like that the benefit of multiple strikes.

  2. I appreciate the analysis here – the Viking burial is fascinating!

    As for the other layers at play, the quote comes to mind :

    “What was the sweating professor trying to say?”
    -H. L. Mencken
    A Mencken Chrestomathy

    … except that the writing is rather subdued, IMHO.

    Quote fans : See :

    1. ^^^^

      Oh no – hasty proofread error correction :

      The “professor” I suggested is a plural, namely “Pape and Ialongo” but was not even sure of that.

      In other words NOT PCC(E)!


  3. The foundational premise of the study is flawed. There is no such “thing” as non-binary. Confusing personality traits with gender implies there are an infinite number of genders, there aren’t. There are two. Male and female with an infinite number of personalities.

    What is the 3rd gender?

    Post modernist deconstruction is (ironically) plagued with an irrational drive to categorize “everything”.

    The study is yet another (thinly disguised) attempt to deny biological reality. Who’s footing the bill?

  4. The two authors conducted their research at the University of Göttingen. Accordingly, the results of the paper have also made it into the German media, which unfortunately do not question the results as critically as Jerry Coyne.

  5. Weak evidence at best. Would I be surprised if prehistoric humans exhibited at least some gender fluidity? Of course not. If it’s really that important to validate gender fluidity in the past, you’ll need more samples and perhaps more clarity regarding the sex determination of the decedent and the gender determination of grave goods (if those are possible).

    NOTE: By “sex” I refer to biological sex—male or female. By “gender” I refer to a person’s sexual orientation.

    1. Agreed, except “gender” does not now, nor has it ever in the past, referred to one’s sexual orientaion.

  6. So the researchers are relying on biological sex being determinate in order to make their case? But I thought that sex is a social construction. /s

      1. I agree that they accept sex as binary, but my (badly expressed) point is that they seem to accept that in order to make a case for non-binary exceptions. There seems to be a logical flaw here

  7. The elephant in the room is: we really don’t know what the inclusion of grave goods means. Can we really draw conclusions about the social status of the person from them? If we were sure about that in one time and place, can we generalize to others? No, we can’t.

    I suspect that “warriors were buried with weapons” may be too simplistic. Maybe it was more about how the family wanted the person to be seen in the open grave, than what that person had done for a living? Maybe the grave goods were the deceased father’s or grandfather’s? Maybe burying weapons was a magical attempt to end a period of conflict? Who knows?

  8. Teacher: “Johnny, nobody else can tell you what your gender is. It’s about how YOU feel inside. Only you can know if you are a boy or a girl or neither or both.”

    Professor: “John, we found this astounding archaeological evidence that these skeletons were nonbinary people. Isn’t that wonderful?!!!”

    It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be consistent. It doesn’t even have to be real. “Truth” is whatever wins the uncommitted and advances the cause in the minds of the believers.

  9. In order to promote the premise that transgender individuals have always existed, it has lately become popular to erase the homosexuality of ancient people and instead promote a transgender (in this case, non-binary) reading of them. As usual, there is no mention of homosexuality at all in this case. Surely that should be added to the list of possible explanations. (Assuming one could get beyond the uncertainty of the sex of the individuals and the uncertainty of how the artifacts map to gender roles.)

    Why? It has been consistently demonstrated, in cultures around the world, that homosexual persons, on average, are more gender non-conforming than their heterosexual counterparts. This includes occupational and recreational preferences, physical presentation (such as clothing), and in speech and mannerisms. Whenever gender non-conformity is observed, I think that homosexuality, not transgenderism, should be the default explanation.

    But could the on average gender non-conformity of homosexuals be entirely an aspect of culture? After all, the gay culture of a particular society may have just as many expectations as the typical male and female gender roles. However, the gender non-conformity of homosexual persons is a universal phenomenon. Additionally, gender non-conformity often manifests in childhood, where a pre-homosexual child would not yet be aware of cultural expectations and often would be under strong pressure to behave in gender-typical ways. So I think that we can assume that all human populations will have a percentage of homosexual members and that some of those homosexual persons will be gender non-conforming.

    1. Yes, how do they know if they were gay, or lesbian, who are “super-binary”, instead of “non-binary”? They can’t.

  10. The whole idea of deducing gender from the individual’s apparent role in society bothers me. I am biologically female. I am a retired computer engineer (stereotypically a male-dominated field); my current passion is woodturning (stereotypically a male-dominated hobby); I can fix electrical wiring and plumbing and tiling (stereotypically male activities); my basement is full of power tools we accumulated when we renovated our house. If my grave were filled with the trappings of these activities, the authors of this paper would conclude that I was non-binary. I assure you that I am most certainly not – I am woman, through and through 🙂 In fact, I find it rather sexist to express sentiments like “oh, you’re into woodworking, so you must not be a ‘woman'”.

    1. You make an excellent point. In their rush to discover (or construct) “non-conformity”, many progressives eagerly narrow their descriptions of prevailing gender roles. This is both disingenuous and insulting…

    2. Absolutely this! Between the authors’ sexist assumptions of what roles /grave goods women are permitted and the inexplicable decision to not mention the possibility of homosexuality as another potential explanation for any gender nonconformity (as pointed out by Quercus at #9 above) the paper falls a long way short of producing useful knowledge.

        1. I’m skeptical about that, Christopher. Why would a society risk its womb-bearers in melee combat against big strong men who could squash them like bugs or split them open like lobsters and render them barren even if they survived—or carry them off as sex prizes? To my way of thinking, as soon as you find brute-force weapons in a woman’s grave, that tells you that the weapons were put there for some reason other than to celebrate the deceased’s battlefield prowess, no matter what the sex of other skeletons.

          There is much Viking lore about shield-maidens etc. and there may have been female leaders and planners and even queens. But unless you wade into battle with your men or lead a raiding party out of your longship they won’t follow you. And if they have to rescue you from faint-hearted 15-year-old boys you do tangle with, you’re a liability not an asset.

          The arrows (arrowheads, surely, the shafts long rotted) in the Birka grave don’t rescue the argument. Women can’t pull the 100-lb draw of a simple longbow (estimated from modern replicas) over and over again at high rates of fire without fatigue. Archers were big powerful men. The Vikings didn’t have the recurved compound bow that women might have been able to use effectively. But it still takes a lot of force to put an arrow through a man’s chest covered in felt or chain mail and no archer could put one through plate armour, according to modern re-enactments. The reference chain about the “armour-piercing arrows” in the Birka grave dies out without giving any description of these artifacts. No explosively formed penetrators in those days. 🙂

          It is not sexist or transphobic for an archeologist to say, “We’ll have to revisit what we think weapons mean as grave goods because women certainly weren’t hand-to-hand warriors.” It’s just common sense.

  11. Interested folks should read the two sections of the article called “The potential bias in the determination of archaeological gender” and “Interpretive framework: minorities versus exceptions”. Here the authors try to work through their assumptions in a transparent way. Sorry this is long, but the details are super interesting.

    The authors don’t confront the possibility that assignment of gender to a burial could have the same wide margin of measurement error (or what the authors call “determination error”, 10-30% as our host says) as the assignment of sex to a skeleton.

    As our host says, these error rates matter. The two error rates for sex and for gender compound for any grave site: the probability that both sex and gender are correctly identified for each individual grave is the product of 1 minus the error rate for each. For each of the ~250 graves where both sex and gender were determined, if the error rate for each variable is 30% then the probability that both variables were correctly identified for that grave is only about 0.5 (and even if the error rates are only 10% the probability that both were correctly identified is still only about 0.8). These are weak data.

    Most important, the authors argue that there is a persistent non-binary “minority” found throughout the archeological record they studied, and they lean on this temporal consistency as evidence that this “minority” is real and not an artefact of the data quality. But this is an inference error: for any of the individual time periods, the sample of graves and sexes and genders is much smaller than the total, and the precision of the estimate of the size of this “minority” is even lower than for the total sample. So the authors have *less* confidence in their estimate of the size of the “minority” at any one time than they do for the whole time period they examined. The authors don’t try to estimate the confidence interval around the size of the “minority” for any single time period, but I guess that interval includes zero for each time period.

    And the authors don’t even touch the problem that what we (and presumably Neolithic and Bronze Age people) think of as gender is just stereotypes associated with each of the two sexes (as others have commented already). The word “stereotype” doesn’t appear in the article.

  12. This is the kind of mishigass you get into when the terms are poorly-defined and overlapping.

    Gender-Nonconforming Person: a man or woman who rejected or ignored the social rules about how men and women “ought” to behave. This would include women warriors and men who tended to children, as well as homosexuals and individuals hiding out as the opposite sex for whatever reason.

    Today, we view this as acceptable inclinations and choices. File it under Humanism, Feminism, and a “Free to Be You and Me” philosophy.

    Transgender Non-Binary Person: someone whose internal sense of their sex doesn’t match either the sex assigned to them or the available sexes. This isn’t just Gender Non-Conformity, above. It’s significantly distinct in a critical way. The person isn’t just rejecting imposed gender roles: they are rejecting their biological sex. This may or may not involve gender nonconformity. It’s an internal identification.

    File it under a “You Can’t Tell If Someone Is a Man or Woman Just By Looking At Their Body.”

    BOTH these groups could qualify as “minorities” deserving of protected status. And BOTH these groups are regularly used interchangeably in descriptions of “non-binary.” This muddles everything.

    This study is only looking for objective evidence for Gender Nonconformity then trying to infer how the individual might have felt subjectively, completely ignoring all the hypothetical “non-binary” people who happily conformed to gender expectations for their assigned sex because they just happened to like stuff like that. And even if we had self-reports in the historical record, the study can’t distinguish between people who thought they were the “wrong sex” because they lived in a sexist society and bought into the framework — and people who would think they were the “wrong sex” regardless. We can’t do that today.

    Feminists and Gay People are rightfully furious about this nonsense. Using this approach, every strong woman role model in history was quite possibly not a woman. They gave obvious signs they weren’t by doing something interesting. And prominent gay men in the past might actually have been straight people in bodies that didn’t match who they were. So we can’t really count them as gay.

    It’s a conceptual mess. It doesn’t matter what this study discovers. Non-Binary is indistinguishable from Gender Nonconforming.

    1. Yes, the posthumous transing of gender nonconforming men and, especially, women is starting to rival the Mormons and their retrospective baptisms.

      A recent example is the case of the British lesbian artist Marlow Moss:

  13. The authors should consider several hypotheses for the meaning of being buried with weapons. It could be the case that weapons were a sign of high status, so some women could be buried with weapons to indicate that. These women could be the wives of great warriors or village chiefs, for example. Or they could have some leadership position themselves. But it doesn’t automatically mean that they were “non-binary” or anything like that.

  14. “Nonbinary” is a fad. It isn’t even gender dysphoria. Are we going to check graves to see if people were emo in past years?
    If they were found in a dramatic pose, you betcha!!

  15. It might be worth looking at what we know of pre-Christian European religions and mythology for some idea of what these cultures thought about the whole gender business. Admittedly, we don’t have a lot for a great deal of European history – our information on pre-literate cultures is largely restricted to what their literate neighbours wrote about them – but the story of Teiresias, and accounts of some of Loki’s adventures, suggest that a systematic inquiry might be fruitful.

  16. Even if (counter-factually) the evidence unambiguously indicated that a tiny minority of females engaged in men’s social roles, so what! Has this ever been a controversial claim? Surely not. Really, there’s nothing to see here, folks.

  17. I am suspicious of historical claims of a non-binary identity. Of course, it must have happened 1,000 or 2,000 year ago. However, we have long historical record of gay characters. For example, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès (under Napoleon) and Ernst Rohm (under Hitler) were openly gay. Ancient Greece and Rome produced numerous accounts of homosexuality. What we don’t have is an extensive historical record of non-binary identities.

    Of course, non-binary identities were frowned upon historically. However, this does not account for the lack of a historical record. Homosexuality was also frowned upon historically, but we do have a substantial history of homosexuality.

    The lack (paucity) of a historical record, suggests that non-binary identities are a new thing.

  18. It’s great that the authors accept that sex is a binary, which is undeniable given that every ancestor of every human that ever lived, comes from the union of a male -who produced sperm, and had a penis and testicles- and a female -who produced eggs, had a vagina and ovaries. Not a single exception, even in the ancestor species going back hundreds of millions of years.

    Now, how can they determine that a person whose biological sex doesn’t match their grave goods was gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, for example, instead of “non-binary”? I don’t think they can.

  19. When I studied archaeology (albeit briefly), my understanding was the we should avoid projecting our current social concerns onto the past. While there have always been people who don’t conform to the gendered norms of their society, that doesn’t make them “non-binary”, which is a very recent fad of Western societies.

    1. I agree with your remark. In the past and in different cultures the sex and sexuality were treated differently. Actual reinterpretation with political overtones does not make much sense if one wants to understand those buried people. The reinterpretation reflex’s on who are the authors of the article not a graved character.

  20. Regarding the claim that Joan of Arc was a “tomboy” who “liked to fight”, her own statements show that she was neither: she said at her trial (during the fourth session) that she avoided fighting and carried her banner in battle instead of a weapon, confirmed by numerous eyewitness accounts. She also told one of the soldiers, Jehan de Metz, that “I would have preferred to stay home with my poor mother and spin wool” rather than go to the war. Eyewitnesses who knew her in her early years (who later testified during the postwar investigations of her trial in the 1450s) noted that she liked spinning and sewing and other household tasks, and was certainly not a tomboy in any sense. She also consistently called herself “the maiden” (“la pucelle”) as her chosen moniker, which is definitely feminine.

  21. Any interpretation of what a gender/sex “mismatches” means that includes currently fashionable, culture- and time dependent words like “non-binary” will tell us more about our time than the bronze age. It’s males and females with grave goods that show that their attire or their occupation or social role all all of them may have been atypical for their sex (unless the sex attribution is mistaken). Without additional sources, anything else is speculation.
    There is a known case from the 18th century of a woman, Jeanne Barret, wearing men’s clothes and working in a very masculine occupation (for the time), namely, being a botanist’s assistant on an explorer’s ship. She went on to marry a French officer. She certainly wasn’t buried in male attire (though she may have, had she died in Tahiti or while still on the ship), but her role as botanist and explorer was marked on her grave. I very much doubt that she was “non-binary” in the current sense, or had problems with normal pronouns.

  22. Long use of weapons would surely have some visible effect on musculature & therefore the skeleton? Also a warrior gets wounded unless very lucky.

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