Ancient Persians Recognized At Least Three Genders

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

 

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