Ancient Persians Recognized At Least Three Genders


Stephen Luntz


Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Golden bowl

This slightly squashed but still remarkably preserved golden bowl from Hasanlu gives us insight into this pre-literate Persian civilization, including their gender roles. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum

A study of graves from a 3000-year-old Persian civilization suggests the people buried there did not hold to the rigid gender binary that is only just starting to break down. Indeed, the author argues, archaeological studies have been influenced by viewing both sex and gender through a western lens.

Debates about gender, and the legitimacy of people who reject the one they were assigned at birth, are a rising cultural battlefield. The Trump administration's efforts to exclude transgender individuals from the military and ban gender changes on public records, and to erase intersex individuals entirely, are the most notable example, but similar attacks are occurring worldwide.


Proponents claim a strict gender binary, attached to easily determinable sexual characteristics is historically universal. People who identify as transgender are portrayed as recent interlopers, encouraged by postmodern values. Professor Megan Cifarelli of Manhattanville College argues the opposite is the case. The gender binary is culturally specific, in conflict with many, perhaps most, past civilizations.

Cifarelli has made a special study of graves from Hasanlu, north-western Iran. Around 3,000 years ago Hasanlu had the misfortune to be on a path frequently trod by competing armies, and was repeatedly sacked and burnt.

After the site was abandoned 2,800 years ago surviving graves were undisturbed until found by archaeologists, who documented the bodies found there, and accompanying possessions, in great detail.

Cifarelli analyzed their reports and found two clusters, buried with items that were probably considered male and female. However, some 20 percent of graves contained a mixture of male and female objects, implying either the people of Hasanlu believed in a third gender, or saw gender as more of a spectrum than a rigid dichotomy. Her theory is backed up by a golden bowl depicting a bearded person performing what is thought of as female roles.

These details from the Hasanlu golden bowl includes bearded figures engaging in gender roles traditionally assigned to women. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum


Cifarelli has yet to publish her findings, but has been presenting them at archaeological conferences and public lectures. She told IFLScience she is hoping to incorporate the responses she receives from experts before submitting for publication.

At academic conferences, Cifarelli added, responses have been positive. Many Native American cultures recognized more than two genders, for example, “two-spirit” people. Archaeologists studying ancient American cultures are aware of this and often avoid jumping to conclusions about the gender of bodies they find, but Cifarelli's interpretation is new to those specializing in Middle Eastern cultures.

Nevertheless, Cifarelli pointed to the third gender hijras, recently recognized by the supreme court of India as an example of the way Asian cultures also respected gender diversity, until European colonizers suppressed these ideas.


Cifarelli is not just challenging the idea that other cultures saw gender as a binary, but the way archaeologists categorize the sex of bodies. Incomplete bones have traditionally been identified as male or female based on whether the grave included a weapon or some more domestic item.

“This has been replaced with a medical model, looking at bodies as being sexable via scientific methods,” Cifarelli told IFLScience. “However, for a large percentage of the population we can't tell.”

She argues some of these people would have been what we would now call intersex, but archaeologists have assumed they were male or female, and attempted to place them accordingly, while assuming their culture saw sexual definitions as we do.

Cifarelli is aware not everyone will agree with, or understand, her findings. “People think I must be a crusading radical, pushing contemporary identity politics into the past, but I'm actually trying to lift the weight of 19th-century identity politics.” she said. Although it can be an uphill battle: At one public event, a man assured her with complete confidence that “It's easy to tell the sex of a dead body. Women have an extra rib.” Cifarelli described this to IFLScience as “A hard idea to respond to in public.”

The Hasanlu lovers, two skeletons, both probably male, who appear to be kissing, have long challenged heterosexist assumptions in archaeology, which Cifarelli is taking further. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum


[H/T Haaretz]