The "gay caveman"

3 minute read

I am just about to go crazy today. I just can’t seem to escape the “gay caveman” story.

No, I don’t mean the Geico caveman who likes mango duck breast and who has Talia Shire as his therapist. His sexual orientation I don’t know.

I mean this story in the Telegraph (UK) (“First homosexual caveman found”) which claims:

The male body said to date back to between 2900-2500BC was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.

The story is based on a press conference with archaeologists in Prague, who are involved in excavating and analyzing a series of burials found at a site in the city. PressTV has put a televised report online (HT Eric Michael Johnson). The work is newsworthy, but there is no publication immediately forthcoming. The burial in question, one of many, is interesting because the archaeologists have perceived a mismatch between the sex of the skeleton (they assess as male) and the grave goods and positioning of the skeleton (they assess as female).

I have few comments, and really none at all about the archaeology in question. All they did was outreach for their ongoing work, talking about its possible scientific importance. Good for them!

My criticism is limited to the Telegraph and the (at this count) hundreds of press outlets all over the world who have breathlessly repeated the “gay caveman” story. Heck, they’ve even raided Wikipedia.

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!

Corded Ware burials are pre-Bronze Age farmers, not anywhere near cavemen. These are scientifically very informative, I should know as I’ve measured many European skulls of equal age. But the Telegraph may just as well have said that Stonehenge was built by cavemen.

Er, well, given the quality of their science coverage, I shouldn’t speak so soon – maybe they actually do think that cavemen built Stonehenge…

Kristina Killgrove is ahead of me on the story (“So, what we’ve learned is that this skeleton was neither a caveman nor necessarily gay.”</a>). She pointed me to Rosemary Joyce’s post on the story (“‘Gay Caveman’: Wrecking a perfectly good story”). Joyce is an expert in sex and gender in archaeology and points to the problems that inevitably arise in sexing skeletal remains in these contexts:

We need to know the age and possible lifeway of this individual to avoid what Lori Hager called the sexism of sexing. She used as her example a burial at atalhyk of an older woman whose pelvic anatomy had been remodeled and diverged from the expectations for female skeletons.
It would also help to know what criteria are being used to assess sex. In 2000, Chris Meiklejohn and colleagues published a discussion of Mesolithic Europe that noted the difficulty using robusticity, for example, to identify males, as some females were more robust than some males in the samples they examined.
Then there is the question of intersexed individuals those persons whose chromosomal sex may vary from the dichotomous grid of two sexes that is assumed by the reporters writing about this story, and apparently, by the archaeologists involved as well. Contrast this with the work of Rebecca Storey, who identified a royal burial at Copan as likely a genetically intersexed person.

On the topic of transgender, third gender or homosexuality in skeletal remains – I agree entirely with Joyce. My only further comment is that we don’t have any scientific report about the skeleton. From a photograph it does not look like an obvious male to me. If there are DNA results or a more systematic survey of features, we’ll just have to wait for them. Based only on skeletal features there is a substantial chance of sex misassignment (a female skeleton that looks more male than typical). From a Bayesian perspective, the chance of a misassignment is higher than the chance that the burial is truly unique among known Corded Ware burials.

So, maybe gay but not clearly so, definitely not a caveman. Absolutely bad science reporting. Bad, bad, bad. Miserably awful. No links, no indication of affiliation of sources, no background information. No photo (the Daily Mail, of all places, came up with a photo of the burial, while the Telegraph illustrates their web story with generic stock photo of African rock art). No indication of whether the work is pre-publication or whether there’s a forthcoming paper. Yuck.