The Skeleton in the Closet

Quite a few people found their way to Sexy Archaeology this week with the key words “Gay skeleton”, “gay caveman”, and “sexy caveman”.  While I can’t explain why those search phrases brought them here, as I’m neither gay nor a caveman, I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to start penning a post to tackle this media kerfuffle.

When the news broke this week that a 5000 year old “Gay caveman” had been discovered in Czech Republic, I was (gasp) immediately skeptical (Skepticism? So not in my nature!).  I saw the story first in The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper which tries to pretend it isn’t a tabloid for some unknown reason.  Shortly thereafter the story started popping up in other news outlets (Huff Post, CTV, The Telegraph).  Each headline “succeeded” in two things: inferring this man’s sexuality AND referring to him in the most outdated of hominid terms: caveman.

And so it began.  I sat down at the computer and began pouring over some of the most poorly written “science” articles I’ve read all year.  My main question: what was it exactly that had the the media in a buzz over the discovery of the “World’s first homosexual”?

The fact that he was buried in a position typically reserved for women.

That was it?  Pump the proverbial brakes… archaeology is supposed to be a scientific field.  So where’s the science?  Well here is the “science” from The Telegraph:

The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republic with its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.

“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,” said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.

Ergo…

“Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual,” she added.

According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.

So that’s it?  That is the science?  I can’t begin to label the number of possible reasons this assumption of sexual preference could very well be wrong.  Not to mention that all of the media reports dodge details of how the skeleton was sexed, an important line of evidence that has has been pointed out by numerous other sites.  There are a number of methods for identifying the sex of a skeleton (bone size comparison, studying the size of the pelvis and the pelvic inlet, etc…), but a DNA analysis is by far the most conclusive.  Has that been performed with this skeleton?  I don’t know, the articles make no mention of it.  And if you are going to make claims like this, you might want throw all the evidence you have out there.  And let’s not forget all the other cultural explanations that this burial could have.  Perhaps this was an outsider that came into this community, or a person of special reverence, just to name a few.

So is this just a text book case of making a claim in an attempt to garner a bit of media attention?  Feels that way.  Regardless, it pisses me off to see the media plastering this story in the headlines based on such flimsy evidence.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last.

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And, as a side note, I’d invite everyone to check out this article at Salon, which does a fine job highlighting the absurdity around the story and the way it was reported.

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