Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Gay Caveman Debate

On Thursday, April 14, 2011, I posed Archaeologists Find “Gay” Caveman. Vilges Suola commented that “There's no reason to assume he was homosexual, transsexual, bisexual or anything else. He wasn't even a caveman!” This led me to do some further research. A chorus of paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and other bone experts have carefully dissected media reports about the dig, which began to increase after first appearing in British and Czech newspapers. I will admit that as a professional historian and teacher, I rarely choose to teach about prehistoric man, and I have a good reason for doing so. For me, there are prehistoric humans (those before written history), protohistoric humans (those during the beginnings of a written language and thus history), and historic humans (those who have a written history). Protohistoric man and historic man are in the realm of the historian, and prehistoric man is in the realm of anthropology. Though I do teach about prehistoric man, I make sure that my students understand the difference and why I usually start with the development of civilizations (that is those with a written record and those who built towns—though the birth of cities does not always follow with a written language, it often does due to the bureaucratic records needed for feeding and administrating a city). My research led me to several questions about the “gay” caveman: Was he a caveman? How do you classify a man of the Corded Ware culture? Was he even a man? What can we deduce about his gender identity or sexual orientation? Are these questions even important? I plan to answer these questions in this post.

The “man” found in the Czech Republic is a prehistoric man. The Corded Ware culture from which he originated may have had a proto-Germanic language, but no written records survive, and it is doubtful that humankind during this period and in that region had a written language (Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Harrapan, and Yellow River Civilizations had written languages and rich urban civilizations). Central Europe was not urbanized during this period. The Corded Ware culture, however, did not live in caves, and it is an incorrect generalization that prehistoric men are cavemen. Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) humans were cavemen, though the term is rarely used by professionals, and the Corded Ware culture was a Neolithic (New Stone Age) culture or Chalcolithic (Copper Age) culture, thus not a caveman, though he is prehistoric.

Second, is this skeleton even the skeleton of a man? I tend to take the archaeologists who found the skeleton at their word, since they have examined the skeletal remains and determined it to be a man. Until concrete evidence is found to the contrary, then I will believe that it is a male skeleton. Rosemary Joyce has a fascinating discussion on her blog about the problems of determining the sex of a skeleton. It is quite complicated and more in the purview of the archeologists and anthropologists than the historian. However, though Joyce makes an argument that they may have decided the sex too early, she gives little evidence that they were incorrect. Press TV, an Iranian international news network, broadcasting in English, sent a reporter to the Czech Republic and interviewed Kamila Remisova Vesinova, of the Czech Archeological Society. She stated:
The grave in Terronska Street in Prague 6 is interred on its left side with the head facing the West. An oval, egg-shaped container usually associated with female burials was also found at the feet of the skeleton…. 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. So we think based on data that it could be a member of a so-called third gender, which were people either with different sexual orientation or transsexuals or just people who identified themselves differently from the rest of the society.…None of the objects that usually accompany male burials, such as weapons, stone battle axes and flint knives, were found in the grave….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. ... What we see here doesn't add up to traditional Corded Ware cultural norms.
Another member of the archaeological team, Katerina Semradova, said that colleagues had uncovered an earlier case dating from the Mesolithic period where a female warrior was buried as a man. She added that Siberian shamans were also buried in this way but with richer funeral accessories appropriate to their elevated position in society. (We should also remember that third gender individuals were sometimes seen as magical or spiritual beings because of their ability to bridge the gap between the masculine and feminine worlds.) This grave did not include any richer funeral accessories. In fact, it seems to only have been buried with the oval, egg-shaped container mentioned above. So this is what we seem to be able to gleam from these reports: 1) the skeleton seems to be that of a man, and 2) the body was buried in a female manner with female accoutrements.

Third, what can we know about his gender identity or sexual orientation? The Czech archeological team classified the body as that of a third gender. Considering that gay, bisexual, homosexual, and transgender are all modern terms, what then is a third gender? Historians find it hard to classify pre-modern men and women by a specific gender identity or sexual orientation. Gender can generally be determined by secondary sexual characteristics; however, skeletons, obviously, don’t have a penis, vagina, or breasts. We must look at other determining factors, such as the ones mentioned above. What is a third gender? Will Roscoe gave a good overview of the Third Sex debate, in a paper that was presented at the conference “Lesbian and Gay History: Defining a Field” at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, City University of New York, October 7, 1995. I won’t go into detail about his theories here, but you can read this fascinating piece by clicking on the link above. The terms third gender and third sex describe individuals who are categorized (by their will or by social consensus) as neither male nor female, as well as the social category present in those societies who recognize three or more genders. The term "third" is usually understood to mean "other." 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. The term has been used to describe Hijras of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have gained legal identity, Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and Sworn virgins of the Balkans, among others, and is also used by many of such groups and individuals to describe themselves. Like the Hijra, the third gender is in many cultures made up of biological males who take on a feminine gender or sexual role. In cultures that have not undergone heterosexualization, they are usually seen as acceptable sexual partners for the "masculine" males as long as these latter always maintain the "active" role. The fact is that many cultures have recognized a alternative gender identification. There were males, females, and others. These others, or the third sex, could be hermaphrodites (those born with male and female secondary sexual characteristics), those who chose to live a life of the other sex, eunuchs, or those who were born with homosexual or bisexual orientation. We tend to think in the form of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions and prejudices of the world; however, many prehistoric cultures elevated women to a higher status than the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. The male dominated masculine world often arrived with the invasion of Indo-Europeans (though not always) and with the rise of empires, see The Closet Professor Theorizes: Origins of Homophobia. Women were seen as life givers; many prehistoric deities were women, often with large breasts and protruding pregnant bellies. In the quest for male dominance and procreation, we often overlook the seeming normality in the ancient world of those who were of a different orientation of sexual identity. In small nomadic or semi-nomadic cultures, human populations needed to be small for mobility, thus there was not the overwhelming drive to have many children to increase the population and to build an army for defense of conquest. Therefore, there may not have been the prejudice against non-procreating third sex individuals, whether they were homosexual, transsexual, eunuch, sterile, asexual, or hermaphrodite. Therefore, since we cannot ask this skeleton his sexual orientation or gender identity, we can conclude that if the skeleton is male, then he is of the third gender, but that is all we can conclude.

Does any of this even matter? The answer for me is a resounding yes. If the skeleton is a man and was buried in a feminine manner then it will tell us more about gender identity in the ancient world. Third gender history is an emerging field of study and one that I find fascinating. Pre-twentieth century GLBT history is difficult enough because of the problems associated with identifying the sexual orientation of a historic individual. We really do not understand fully the notions of sexual identification and it needs to be studied further. We have a lot of scholars who make quick assessments, or even ahistorical, assessments about homosexuals in history. As we (the LGBT community) discover our place in this world, it helps to understand the positions those that came before us.

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Further Reading:


Jacob Woods said...

I got the jist of it after reading just several paragrpahs. I wish I had time to read the whole post. I am sort of interested in writing on the topic myself and linking to you as a resource! Great dig! Gay Skeletons Fascinate me

Joe said...

Jacob, I am glad you found this as interesting as I did. I would be more than happy for you to link to this post as a resource (btw, I reread it and cleaned up some of the grammatical errors I missed the first time).

Anonymous said...

I questioned the whole "gay caveman" thing from the start. Too many generalities.

Thanks for a scholarly treatise. Now I know I was right to read further.

Peace <3

Joe said...

Jay, It's always good not to take these things at face value. Archeologists and anthropologists, and even not very good historians, often interpret history through modern day eyes. We have to keep things in historical perspectives. This does sound like a very interesting find, and I hope we hear more about it. The idea of different gender identities and third gender individuals is something that I find fascinating.