They care and they hunt? Archaeogenetics proves that this was not always the case

The application of genetics in archeology and history has allowed, among other advances, to delve into the origin of human migratory movements, to reveal whether the individuals buried in the same tomb are members of the same family, their physical appearance or whether they suffered diseases.

Another application is to determine the sex of the individual to confirm or deny certain gender roles that have been attributed throughout history. On many occasions, mistakes have been made when prejudices about the gender perspective prevail.

Sex, gender and genetics

In order to understand the implication of genetics and link it with a gender perspective, we must know the conceptual difference between sex and gender. According to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, sex is the “Organic condition, masculine or feminine, of animals and plants”. On the other hand, gender is described as “the group to which human beings of each sex belong, understood from a sociocultural point of view instead of exclusively biological”.

Thus, genetics can provide us with exclusive information about the sex of the individual, specifically the presence or absence of the Y chromosome (whose presence determines the male sex), but it cannot provide information about the gender of the individual, this being a sociocultural and personal construction. .

Being clear about these concepts is essential when using genetics in bioarchaeology, because it can inform us about sex, but not about gender.

In order to investigate the past with a gender perspective, it should be accompanied by the archaeological interpretation of other evidence (for example, materials found in the burial), and always with the greatest scientific rigor.

Changes in findings

There are many archaeological finds in which gender roles have been assigned based on the grave goods that accompanied the human remains and later, after the genetic determination of sex, said roles had to be denied.

In Neolithic hunter-gatherer civilizations, it has been taken for granted that the hunting work was performed by men, leaving the female role reduced to gathering, caring and raising children and those in need of the group.

However, the finding in Los Andes of Wilamaya Patixa (7,000 BC) has changed these interpretations. In this site, burials were found with different hunting elements (arrowheads, spears, tools, etc.), after which analysis it was concluded that 11 of the 25 individuals were women, indicating a participation of between 30 and 50%. of women in hunting activities.

To the east of Sweden, in the Viking area of ​​Brika, an exceptional burial was found due to its good preservation and a set of interesting materials that accompanied the buried individual, such as: a sword, an axe, a spear, armor, arrows , a knife, two shields, and two skeletonized horses.

It was assumed that the biological sex of the individual must be male, assigning him the role of warrior due to the extensive war equipment. This diagnosis was maintained despite the fact that the anthropological analysis pointed to the female sex. Only when they obtained the results of the DNA analysis could it be confirmed that it was not a warrior but a female warrior. The role of warrior had been directly associated with the male sex.

Sketch of the archaeological grave found and labeled Bj581 by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden. Published in 1889. Later it was shown that the remains belonged to the so-called ‘Birka warrior’.
One Library / Wikimedia Commons

Other archaeological “skids” in Spain

Regarding the medieval Iberian Peninsula, we find the example of children buried in the late-antique baptismal church of Marialba de la Ribera (León). At the head of the church, infant and perinatal tombs were found, but several of these burials had necklaces and earrings with glass and jet beads, bronze rings, or belt clasps.

This peculiarity, compared to the other burials devoid of ornamental elements, led to the hypothesis that they were young girls and belonging to wealthy families. However, the genetic analysis ruled out the hypothesis that the ornaments constituted an exclusively female funerary practice, since bracelets were found on both.

Finally, we have another case where the genetic analysis allowed to diagnose the sex and, in addition, to establish kinship relationships between individuals.

In Los Tolmos de Caracena (Soria, Spain) a tomb belonging to the Cogotas I culture (Bronze Age) was located, which contained the skeletal remains of three individuals: two adults and one perinatal (newborn or full-term fetus). The central hypothesis of the study was the possibility of a family nucleus, made up of father, mother and son or daughter. It was possible to verify that it was a mother and her perinatal daughter who shared a grave with a woman not biologically related to them. This study opens the debate about what we classically understand as “nuclear family”, showing that the concept of family has also varied over time.

These are some examples that highlight the need to implement a multidisciplinary vision to interpret the archaeological find, and how this can help to deny a gender role interpreted under a vision influenced by certain prejudices. We believe it is necessary to educate the study of the past in multidisciplinarity, specifically the study of human populations of the past.

This article was previously published by the Office for the Transfer of Research Results (OTRI) of the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

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