Ancient Civilization in Iran Recognized Transgender People 3,000 Years Ago, Study Suggests

Skeletons of people killed in the massacre of Hasanlu’s inhabitants around 800 B.C.E.
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MON 21 JAN 2019 04:31 AM.

Ancient Civilization in Iran Recognized Transgender People 3,000 Years Ago, Study Suggests:

A view of the fortified citadel of Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum
An aerial view of the ancient site of Hasanlu. 

As 2018 came to its end, the Trump administration was busying itself with stripping transgender people of official status in U S. law. It may come as a shock to the White House, but it Is trying to erase something that has been recognized by many human societies for thousands of years.

Apparently, an enigmatic civilization in Persia may have embraced this diversity by recognizing the existence of a 3rd gender besides “male” and “female” already 3,000 years ago. 

That is the theory based on the statistical study of artifacts discovered in the burials at Hasanlu, an ancient site thousands of years old located in what is today northwestern Iran.

The study rattles the assumptions archaeologist’s make about sex and gender in ancient civilizations, and also highlights that many non-western societies – past or present have a non-binary view of gender.

Male, female and the spectrum

When human remains are found in an archaeological dig, researcher’s assign them to one sex or the other, if possible, based on the morphology of the skeleton or objects found in the burial, says Megan Cifarelli, an art historian from Manhattanville College, a liberal arts college near New York City.

“Embedded in that use of predetermined categories is the assumption that being male or female meant the same thing a long time ago as it does now,” she says.

To eliminate that bias, she ran an algorithm on 100’s of artifacts uncovered in 51 tombs at Hasanlu. The objective: to figure out which objects, particularly clothing items, appear more frequently together, and what that could mean. Cifarelli presented her results in November at the annual meeting of the American School of Oriental Research in Denver.

One cluster of artifacts that tended to appear together included needles, garment pins, and jewelry, and was almost invariably associated with skeletons biologically identifiable as female, her data discovered.

Another cluster, formed by objects like metal vessels, weapons and armor, was equally strongly correlated with male skeleton.

But the algorithm also showed that around 20% of the burials in Hasanlu featured a 3rd cluster of co-occurring objects: unusual combinations of artifacts, of types that accompanied skeletons of both sexes.

For example, one male tomb in this cluster included an arrowhead, traditionally considered a masculine artifact – and a garment pin, which in Hasanlu’s culture “is just about the most strongly feminine item there is,” Cifarelli says.

Another individuals had a blade and a metal drinking cup, and also, a garment pin and needle. Its seems the deceased performed masculine ritual activities but also wore feminine dress, says Cifarelli.

This persons biological sex was unknown. (Skeletons can be confidently sexed only if they belong to full adults and only if all the necessary bits – especially the pelvis – are found; some forensic scientists say the skull is enough, though the male-female differences are subtler).

In any case, Cifarelli tells Haaretz, there are clearly more than 2 categories of funerary artifacts in Hasanlu: one can be clearly mapped to women, one to men, and then there’s a middle category.

An aerial view of the ancient site of Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum
An aerial view of the ancient site of Hasanlu

The art historian theorizes that these 3 groupings of ritual funerary objects signal that the local culture recognized the existence of at least three different genders.

But how can we know that the artifacts were indeed markers of gender rather than indicator’s of some other social role, or even just random offerings left by grieving relatives?

We cannot be sure, the researcher concedes, but the fact that the 2 more polarized clusters correlate closely with the biological sex of the deceased suggests that indeed gender identity played a role in the selection of mortuary accouterments.

Also, from an anthropological point of view, these burials appear to be highly ritualized and standardized, she says. There is little chance that the analysis was marred by, say, a woman’s spur-of-the-moment decision to drop her favorite earrings into her dearly departed husband’s tomb.

“The social categories that appear in burials are more formal, less individualized and generally conservative,” she says. “It’s a moment for the family to assert this person’s social identity.”

Bearded and wearing a dress

A view of the fortified citadel of Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum
A burial in Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Her research cannot tell us whether belonging to this putative 3rd gender was purely a matter of individual identity or whether it was a social category created for people who displayed non-conforming physical characteristics, such as intersex people.  

We do know that in the cluster of non binary individuals, around half of the skeletons were identified as male, 20% as female and the rest remained unknown.

The male preponderance may be an artifact of the fact that the sample was small, or it may suggest that in this ancient society men had more agency in deciding their gender identity.

We will probably never know how these non binary individuals were called and what role they played, as the people of Hasanlu did not write and have left us precious little information about themselves.

However, Cifarelli believes that traces of this 3rd gender can be discerned in Hasanlu’s art, particularly in a golden bowl uncovered there by archaeologists.

A golden bowl found by archaeologists in the ruins of Hasanlu. Courtesy of the Penn Museum
A golden bowl found by archaeologists in the ruins of Hasanlu. Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Among the figures depicted on the bowl is a bearded man wearing female clothing shown sitting on the floor, a position that local iconography usually reserved for women, Cifarelli says. She thinks this may be a representation of a non binary person.

Hasanlu, a low lying mound close to Iran’s border with Turkey and Iraq, was excavated extensively by the University of Pennsylvania from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

In the Bronze Age and Iron Age it was a prosperous city that became increasingly contested among two neighboring powers, the Assyrian empire and Urartu, a kingdom based in todays eastern Turkey and Armenia. Hasanlu is also known as the Pompeii of the Near East because around 800 B.C.E.

The city was sacked and destroyed, probably by the Urartians. The conquerors massacred the inhabitants and torched the place, leaving a layer of destruction with dozens of skeleton’s perfectly preserved by the ash and rubble.

The most famous of these remains are the so-called Hasanlu Lovers, 2 people who appear locked in a tender embrace. Since both the skeletons are believed to be male, this discovery has long fueled a debate over love and sexuality in this ancient culture.

The skeletons of Hasanlus massacred inhabitants, many of them horribly mutilated, were not part of Cifarelli’s study, since they were not properly buried. She focused on actual tombs from an earlier time, spanning about 250 year’s, from a previous destruction of the city around 1050 B.C.E. up to its final fall to Urartu.

During this period, probably because of mounting threats in the neighborhood, the city underwent a process of militarization. Massive fortification’s were built and weapons began to appear amongst funerary offerings.

Cifarelli notes that artifacts found in burials prior to the 1050 B.C.E. destruction did not show such an intense polarization between genders, however many there were at the time. “It is an anthropological truism that, in times of crisis, whatever divisions you have become more distinct,” she explains.

A view of the fortified citadel of Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum
A view of the fortified citadel of Hasanlu Courtesy of the Penn Museum

She hopes to find other large data sets on funerary artifacts from around the world to prove her method works and identify other ancient societies that did not see gender in binary terms. Looking at groups from the more recent past that were either documented by anthropologists or survived to this day, non-binary gender is extremely common, she says.

For example, researchers have learned that Native Americans societies had, collectively, more than hundred different gender expressions, with some tribes recognizing the existence of up to five genders. 

In most cases, this pluralistic world view was quashed by colonial rule, which imposed laws and mores that forcibly introduced European concepts of sex and gender based on Judeo Christian values. But in some places, alternative concepts still survive.

India officially recognizes a third gender that groups together the Hijras, who are eunuchs, intersex or transgender peoples who have been respected figures in Hindu culture for millennia. In some native cultures of southern Mexico, the traditional division into 3 genders has survived, while the Bugis of Indonesia recognize five genders. 

Even in the heart of Catholic Italy, in Naples, there is the centuries old phenomenon of femminielli, biological males who dress and behave as women. They are respected figures, traditionally believed to bring good luck, which may date back to pagan rituals of crossdressing, or eunuch priests.

In the West, this vast anthropological and archeological proofs of multiple gender expression is often willfully ignored, says Cifarelli, citing the U.S. government’s attempts to define gender as binary and unchangeable, or the frequent controversies over testing and excluding female athletes suspected of being intersex. 

“In Western societies, the impulse to stick people into those 2 boxes – male or female – is very persistent,” she says. “My point is that there’s this enormous range, flexibility and fluidity in the world, and we should recognize it.” If people from the Iron Age who had no writing could embrace diversity – perhaps even Donald Trump can do it too.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.