Screw gender norms. Women can definitely fight too.
I know I’ve reblogged similar stuff before, but I suck at consistent tagging so u can’t find the other commentary.
But yeah, maybe my favorite part of how this keeps happening is that some earlier researchers actually found it easier to believe that all the adults buried at a given place must have been high status men. (Maybe that earlier society was even more backwards, and didn’t bury women at all? Maybe those women were really immortal? Who knows. They didn’t have any graves.)
Rather than even starting to question their own assumptions around findings like not nearly as much variation in people’s heights and grave goods–and access to resources in general–as they would expect based on their own society at the time. When yes, it turned out to be a fairly even mix after all.
I have read about a number of cases around the world where exactly that has happened, but somebody did reexamine the evidence and reevaluate those conclusions later on. And there are probably many more which haven’t gotten another critical look. (No doubt plenty of cases I haven’t learned about, either. Plenty.)
This is one of those interesting examples where the media went in a very different direction from the research. Even though I would like this headline to be 100% unqualified truth, I feel like it’s important to note some important stuff before we proceed.
I am very sorry about all this stuff. IT IS A ROCKY FUCKING RIDE.
- We have to differentiate between Vikings and the Norse. Everyone has heard of Vikings, and we have a really clear idea about who the Vikings were and what they did, so “Viking” is used to refer to seafaring Norse culture (and that’s fine – language evolves, and if you say “Viking” you can IMMEDIATELY communicate what you’re talking about.) However, “Viking” is more of a professional term than the name of a culture – going viking is kind of like going hiking, or biking, but with more quaffing and stabbing. There were NOT entire civilizations consisting entirely of male berserker warriors pillaging their heads off, with maybe one or two shieldmaidens and a drippy ethereal blonde waiting nonspecifically back home, and if you think about it for about five seconds, you will see that this is a silly idea. After all, what’s the point of pillaging and conquering and raiding the locals in soft green fertile countries if you don’t… settle in the nice soft fertile area you have just conquered, and colonize it and keep it?
- So while there were Vikings crashing around Europe/Africa/North America, frightening the livestock, their families also existed, and they were just plain Norse people. The Norse invaded and settled in plenty of places, and while we all prefer the sensational headline (”THE VIKINGS INVADED BRITAIN”) there is also the historical truth (”Norse families settled down and farmed in close-knit British communities for many generations, and practiced extensive trade along their famous sea routes.”) The 2011 paper this headline appears to be based on is not about Vikings, it’s about Norse migrants. It’s called Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 ad and it basically says “Yes, the Norse people who seized Eastern England were a balanced mix of men and women, BECAUSE THAT IS HOW HUMAN COLONIES USUALLY WORK.”
- Now that being said, we do have to recognize that our concept of Vikings = warriors = men is false, because evidence suggests that even the original campaigns to conquer eastern England had a balanced mix of male and female people from the very beginning. And presumably they had a fair mix of farmers/crafters/diplomats/holy people/healers as well, on account of how they then proceeded to establish English colonies that traded and thrived for generations. But there was no reason to ever think otherwise, apart from our own weird beliefs that colonizing is an exclusively militaristic and violent enterprise, which can ONLY ever be done by warriors, who can ONLY ever be men. And that is a weird, convoluted, and frankly inefficient train of thought. Like clatterbane says, we’re just riffing off some of the silliest assumptions you can make about cultures. Think about it for five seconds. WHY WOULD YOU THINK THIS? DO ROLEPLAYING PARTIES EVER CONSIST ENTIRELY OF BERSERKERS? HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK? HOW WOULD THIS WAR PARTY THEN POPULATE AND INFLUENCE AN ENTIRE NATION? FOR GOD’S SAKE. “Ooh, I found a skeleton with a Nordic sword in England, ooh, he must have been a ferocious Viking who pillaged and raped his way here and was killed in battle” OR MAYBE IT WAS A NICE NORSE MATRIARCH WHO LIVED HERE ON PURPOSE, SHE ONCE CUT A ROBBER’S HEAD OFF IN HER YOUTH BUT WAS LATER KICKED IN THE HEAD BY HER OWN COW. GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME.
- I should demand to be buried in a bathtub in Kirkwall, wearing a bulletproof vest, with the skeleton of Myrtle the Fruit Bat clutched in my hands so that future anthropologists can be like “Oooh yes this is the famous Batman we’ve heard so much about, half man, half bat. He colonized the Orkneys in his famous porcelain boat and practiced a vampiric religion. He was a famous warrior who did a lot of nonconsensual pillaging, and that’s why everyone in Scotland is so grim and dark. Preps stared at him, that’s why he’s putting up his middle fingers”
- that leads me to
- Sexing from graves is not super reliable. So the paper that explains how Norse migrants included women did so by examining the bones of Norse graves. They concluded that many of the skeletons were female, rather than male, as had been previously assumed as the default. (NB: MOST OF THESE WERE NOT WARRIOR GRAVES – THEY WERE THE GRAVES OF NORSE MIGRANTS IN GENERAL. THERE WERE SOME MIXED GRAVE GOODS BUT NOTHING PARTICULARLY SUGGESTIVE OF GENDER, EVEN IF YOU BELIEVE THAT GENDER IS STRICTLY DETERMINED BY MALE SKELETONS HOLDING SWORDS AND FEMALE SKELETONS HOLDING, IDK, FRYING PANS. TO COOK PANCAKES FOR THE DEAD. LIKE WOMEN DO.) Like Clatterbane says above, we are FAR too used to making ridiculous assumptions just because we found some skeletons. “ooh, these were high-status men from a fierce and amoral warrior culture that reproduced by kidnapping native women, and all the women and female children of the population were removed by evaporation. You can tell because the skeletons were buried with clothes on, and looked kinda cool.” Because sexing from grave goods is just a series of foolish, unfounded decisions. If you assume a skeleton is male because it was buried with weapons and armor, you are not making publication-worthy decisions. Many of these “X skeleton discovered to be female!” papers are based on osteological sexing, in which people with training in forensics or anthropology actually looked at the skeleton and went “Hey wait, these are lady bones.” Which is what this paper is about – examining the bones and seeing that they are a balanced mix of male and female bones. But that is in ITSELF problematic because…
- Sexing from bones is hard work. Osteological sexing is just not as clear cut as it sounds on CSI, or in archaeology, where people declare with total certainty that a rotting skeleton is a young white female, by holding up a fragment of bone and squinting at it. (Trans and intersex people will also argue that sexing humans from our squishy flesh bodies, with genitals attached to them, is also unreliable. They are correct.) The only real areas in which gender can be suggested from bones is the chin sort of area (unreliable) and the pelvis. The pelvis usually wins. You can get a PERFECT male skull on a skeleton with a TEXTBOOK female pelvis, and in that case you would probably call your skeleton a female. She probably had a fierce strong chin in life, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
- The thing that you are looking for in the hips is the characteristic wider bowl shape of the pelvis, that allows most cis women to give birth via the vagina. Men’s pelvic bones theoretically make a circular hole, and womens’ are supposed to suggest more of an oval. Men should have a pointier bit like a v-neck sweater where the bones join in front, and women should have more of a scoop neck. And while the difference looks clear when you’re looking at the Textbook Examples in Gray’s Anatomy…
Figure 1. “ooh, this is easy! the male is on the left. You can tell because the textbook says the male one is on the left.”
- … The real world is often not quite so obliging. After all, plenty of the women you know don’t have curvy hourglass figures, with textbook female hips that are as broad as their shoulders. There are definitely women with “masculine” builds – and men with wide hips, too! There are slim, snake-hipped women whose narrow “male” hips were historically associated with complications in childbirth, but women with that bone structure still exist today. In great numbers. Which we know because female pelvic bones are of IMMENSE interest in the field of…
- OBSTETRICS. Childbirth. The whole “ooh the female pelvis is DESIGNED by NATURE to be the PERFECT BABY DELIVERY CHUTE” that skeleton-measurers will try to sell you? “Oh this was definitely a lady skeleton because of the thing and the widget, which are Designed that way Because Childbirth.” Well, that does not stand up well against the filthy reality of childbirth. If you study obstetrics, or are carrying a fetus, you don’t get the cutesy Male And Female pelvises. You get handed the Four Pelvic Types (“Good luck, bitch”) and if the screaming pregnant lady in front of you has an Android (male) pelvis, then this is going to be A Fun Experience for all.
Figure 2. “Fuck me. Sorry, Ms Viking Lady, we haven’t invented c-sections yet so my book says you’re fucked. I … don’t suppose it will cheer you up to know that you’ve secretly been a man all along? I mean, when we bury you tomorrow, your skeleton will really confuse future historians. WHOA PUT THE SWORD DOWN”
- This is called the
Caldwell-Moloy Classification and you are welcome to google it. In the 1930s up until very recently, this chart was used to suggest whether a woman should have a C-section (we use ultrasounds for that now.) Only about half of women are said to be gynecoid (female) in shape, but I would LOOK THAT UP before quoting it. It’s just something that stuck firmly in my head in college ten years ago, and I remember it clearly because I went and measured my hips in anxiety.* If you really want to get to grips with “how many women have textbook male pelves” then….
- HEY GUESS WHAT KIDS, GET READY FOR RACIAL DIFFERENCES because you’re going to see casually mentioned things like “Oh yes, about 30% of white women have male pelves. And half of WoC have anthropoid pelves.” And you’ll be like SHIT WHAT?! DOES THIS… DO PEOPLE KNOW? And then there will be some throwaway fact like “Oh, BTW, with an anthropoid pelvis, people just won’t be able to achieve a flat butt and stomach with dieting or whatever, the bones just won’t allow that look. The female skeleton can really only get that ‘ideal’ modern model figure with an android pelvis – it’s fairly common in white women, presents a challenge in childbirth, and the skeleton looks male. Anyway, moving on -” And you’re still going WAIT WHAT, GO BACK. DOESN’T THIS CHANGE, IDK, ALL OF DIETING? ANTHROPOLOGY? HISTORY? FORENSICS? HELP? DO THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE KNOW THIS?
- How many men have “female” (or anthropoid, or platypelloid) pelves? Well, traditionally cis men do not go through childbirth, so they’re less interesting, so… I don’t know. I don’t fucking know. I have no fucking idea. Go find out and then tell me.
- How many skeletons that we pronounced female were male all along? Who knows. How many skeletons assumed male are actually female? Who fucking knows.
- Because childbirth isn’t actually very interesting to most people, it’s hard to work out exactly what the fuck is going on, but apparently in 2015 researchers published a paper called Female pelvic shape: Distinct types or nebulous cloud? in which they concluded that female pelves are actually a nebulous cloud. A NEBULOUS CLOUD. FORGET THE NEAT AND TIDY LITTLE GRAY’S ANATOMY DRAWING, WE HAVE OFFICIALLY ENTERED THE REALM OF THE NEBULOUS FUCKING CLOUD. These researchers argue that Caldwell-Moloy is way too simplistic to be practical, and rather than clustering conveniently as obviously masculine, obviously feminine and ‘other’, all female pelves actually exist on a nebulous spectrum across all of the four pelvic types. There’s no point in trying to sort women’s pelvic bones into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories, these researchers say – women’s pelves are unique and unknowable, combining features from all of the known types in an “amorphous, cloudy continuum of shape variation.” OH GOOD. THAT’S GOOD. THAT’S A DIRECT QUOTE FROM THE ABSTRACT. I’M SO GLAD THAT WE ARE IN COMPLETE CONTROL AND KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IS GOING ON
- Anyway. It isn’t super easy to sex skeletons by their pelvic bones. It’s a best guess sort of thing.
- Maybe the only way you can identify a skeleton as female with 100% certainty is if its pelvic area is not a textbook ‘female’ shape but a NEBULOUS FUCKING CLOUD.
So if you would like to re-write this headline to accurate reflect the findings of the paper, it should read
“Some Norse colonists in England had pelvic bones, and the rest had nebulous clouds. Nobody is driving this fucking bus and we should all be TERRIFIED”
* I can relax – I have Official Childbearing Hips, and my midwife agrees! ** Anthropologists will enjoy my skeleton, but the makers of jeans believe I don’t exist. Isn’t that weird that forensics people and historians are convinced that 100% of women have splendidly gynecoid hips, while jeans manufacturers think that 0% of women do?
** EDITED TO ADD: I shouldn’t have said this so flippantly. If you don’t have wide gynecoid hip bones, and you plan to birth your own children, DON’T WORRY!!! This is FINE!!! Hipbones are meant to loosen and separate during labor, so people with ANY variation of hips are usually equipped to deliver a child through the vaginal canal. You can birth a baby with ‘male’ hips – we know this because childbearers with ‘male’ hips aren’t extinct and people of all races manage to reproduce despite the variation in bone structure and you will be FINE. We have modern nutrition now, and bigger stronger bones, and better healthcare – so it isn’t as much of a problem as it was in the past, and ANYWAY, YOU WILL BE FINE. I’m sorry, I should have said. YOU ARE FINE, YOUR SHAPE IS FINE, AND IF YOU CHOOSE TO BIRTH A BABY, YOU WILL BE FINE.
Or, you know, you can have a textbook gynecoid pelvis on which your OB comments approvingly every time you see her, and you can get to one push away from giving birth, and then, because your son decided to wear his umbilical cord as a hat, they can take you away and slice you open anyway. Life is full of delightful surprises!
no seriously I don’t want to freak anyone out, but please don’t get Bone Anxiety about your bones, especially because of one of my posts. NOBODY IS IN CONTROL AND YOUR BONES CAN’T SAVE YOU. TRY NOT TO THINK ABOUT IT. IT WILL BE FINE
NOBODY IS IN CONTROL AND YOUR BONES CAN’T SAVE YOU.
OH YES, SUCH A FINE THING TO SAY AS THE SKELETON WAR APPROACHES.
Either these sorts of anthropologists are not up to date with the field or my department’s bio anthropology expert is uniquely good in the field and gave me the wrong idea. I’m under the impression that while Intro to bioanth teaches a simplistic distinct double bell curves distribution of pelvis types, the field of Bioanth recognizes that it is difficult to accurately sex from bones.
My partner and the aforementioned bioanth professor did a cross disciplinary project together using algorithms to try to sex 13 samples using 117 data points. The results were “This is nigh impossible with only 13 remains. There’s too much overlap to make any certain claims. Really, we’ve tried everything.” All the while I was talking at my partner against such an essentialist approach sex and assumptions about gender.
Most academic papers won’t say “This is definitely a lady because of the shape of her pelvic bones.”
say “We suggest that other researchers should view this specific skeleton as potentially female, based on the distance of X
units between pelvic point A and B [refs 1,2] and the span of Y units of
point C [3,4] which suggest a 60-70% rate of accuracy [5,6] although it
is not conclusive  without DNA evidence .”
The press release, on the other hand, will go “Mythical Warrior Woman Revealed By Science!” and a press officer at the university will knock together something like, “After hundreds of years of identification as a male, the famous Dead Warrior found in Greece is probably a lady, say researchers at the University of Funk…”
The mainstream press will then take the press release, strip out the “probably” and delicate phrases the press officer sweated over, punch up a quote from the researchers, and will straight-up go “SHE IS NO MAN! Scientists slam sexist historians with sexy Xena skeleton – A LADY ALL ALONG!”
The secondary press (as pictured above) will go “AMAZON WARRIOR WOMEN PROVED REAL BY SCIENCE.”
Social media will go hog-fucking-wild.
Tumblr will go “I KNEW IT! MURDER ME, BEAUTIFUL AMAZONIAN WARRIOR WOMEN!”
And Elodie will rewrite the headline so that it goes, “This single skeleton is Greek not South American, and probably – though not certainly – female.”
And Tumblr will go “THAT’S COOL TOO!”
And that is science communication in a nutshell.
1. Seminal Paper On How To Suggest Biological Sex In Humans By Measuring The Proportions of the Pelvis, 1920.
2. Reference 1 is Problematic And We Know Better Now – USE THESE MEASUREMENTS INSTEAD, 1976.
3. Updated Guidelines on Sexing The Bones: Perspectives from the Global Medical Community on Pelvic Measurements, 2012.
4. The Author Wrote This Paper On Pelvic Measurements And Citing It Will Boost Their H-Index, 2014.
Pelvic Measurements Acquired From The Methods Reference 3 Are Found To
Have a 60% Rate of Accuracy At Predicting Sex In Living Women, 2012.
Update To Reference 5 That Just Came Out While Your Paper Was In
Revisions – We Can Get up to 70% Rate of Accuracy If We Do The Math
Better, 2016 (epub ahead of print.)
7. Remember The Part Where Women’s Pelvic Bones Are More Like Nebulous Clouds, 2015.
Reviewer 3 Demanded To Know Why We Didn’t Use DNA Evidence To Confirm
Our Findings And We Were Like FUCK OFF These Bones Are 1000 Years Old
And Were Found In The Warm Mud, Have You Ever Tried To Recover DNA From
Rotten Ancient Bone For Fuck’s Sake, FINE, We Are Citing This Paper On How
DNA Evidence Is Honestly the Most Reliable Way To Sex Human Remains And
Yes Our Paper Has A 40% Chance of Being Completely Wrong, We Just Have To Be Okay With That, 2013.