The Jerusalem Post

Did prehistoric Europe have a non-binary view of gender? - study

Girl and boy cutout decals on pink and blue backgrounds. (photo credit: Magda Ehlers/Pexels)
Girl and boy cutout decals on pink and blue backgrounds.
(photo credit: Magda Ehlers/Pexels)

Biases and sources of error make it difficult to determine the sex and gender of ancient remains.

Humans in prehistoric Central Europe may have viewed gender through a non-binary lens, although several sources of error and bias make it difficult to understand to what extent, according to a new study published last week.

In recent decades, scientists have heavily debated whether or not prehistoric society subscribed to the same, binary view of gender that is largely subscribed to in modern society.

In a new article published in the peer-reviewed Cambridge Archaeological Journal, researchers from the University of Göttingen noted that while theoretical research on prehistoric gender rarely tests its models against quantifiable variables, archaeologists tend to default to binary models of gender without considering the ongoing theoretical debate.

The researchers analyzed a sample of 1,252 individuals from seven burial sites in central Europe from the Early Neolithic and the Late Bronze Age (about 5,500-1,200 BC) and checked skeletal signs used to estimate sex and objects the individuals were buried with.

 Neanderthal communities in prehistoric Europe. How were they linked? (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)
Neanderthal communities in prehistoric Europe. How were they linked? (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)

Biases, sources of error disrupt efforts to determine gender and sex

Osteology, which uses the structure of skeletal remains to estimate a deceased individual's sex, is somewhat uncertain as the signs used to determine sex can also be influenced by other factors.

Individuals were usually buried with objects and in positions that somehow reflected their social traits, one of which could be gender. For example, men may be buried with weapons, while women would be buried with jewelry.

If prehistoric humans used a binary system for gender, than the objects and positions assigned to each sex should be consistent between individuals, without being mixed among the sexes.

The researchers noted that there are a number of biases and sources of error that one needs to be aware of in this kind of study.

For one, there has been a trend of bodies being identified as one sex due to their burial objects or positions, despite anthropological signs indicating that they are the other sex.


The researchers advised that biological sex and archaeological gender should be addressed as two separate concepts. In their study, the researchers assumed that weapons were always a masculine attribute, while other objects were addressed on a case-by-case basis.

The researchers found that 10% of the sampled individuals do not fit a binary model of gender, but also that the gender and sex of only about 30% of the total sample population can actually be determined, meaning 70% of the population lacked either sex or gender determinations or both of them.

"What these numbers tell us, is that historically, we can no longer frame non-binary persons as 'exceptions' to a rule, but rather as 'minorities', who could have been formally acknowledged, protected and even revered," said Dr. Eleonore Pape, who carried out the research at the University of Göttingen and now works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a press release.

"This is only one possible interpretation," stressed Dr. Nicola Ialongo of the University of Göttingen, "At this time, we still cannot assess the real impact—not only due to error margins of analytical methods (for instance osteology), but also of confirmation bias (meaning people tend to find what they want to find)."

The researchers noted that future analyses of ancient DNA and proteins could make the study more determinate.