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

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]

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