An Ambiguously Gay Caveman Is Your New Media Darling

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Archaeologists have found a caveman buried in a Prague suburb. He's probably between 4,500 and 5,000 years old, and he was buried kind of weirdly. In that culture, at that time, it was tradition for men to be buried with their heads pointing west, and with a lot of knives and hammers in the grave. But this guy was buried like a woman: head pointing east, and a grave filled with jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

People will talk, five millennia later when anything "gay" and "science" is clicky. We're not the only ones to slap the term "gay caveman" in a headline: you've got your HuffPo, your Time, your Daily Mail, your Advocate. (NPR is more scrupulous with its headline--"homosexual or transsexual," an actual quote from the archaeologists.) Someone in the art department at the Daily News clearly had fun with this story. And then there's the festive little graphic seen above, which first appeared on ABC News.

While nitpicking on media coverage, though, a paleoanthropologist has pointed out to the site LiveScience that "caveman" is the wrong word here. The buried man was not "'caveman' in age," said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "We're talking about pre-Bronze Age farmers."

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Just to be clear, though: The archaeologists aren't just calling this guy gay on a whim. Kamila Remisova Vesinova, lead archaeologist on the dig, told reporters that "people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake ... Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual." So if it's innuendo, it's at least got the endorsement of some knowledgeable people.

Those same people do note that there are a number of other reasons why a man might have been buried in the traditionally female position, with traditional female grave-goods. Shamans and witch doctors, for example, received this treatment in certain societies. As a professor of anthropology points out to ABC News, plenty of ancient cultures operated without a strict gender binary; some Native American tribes recognized as many as seven different genders.

Interestingly, one of the media outlets pushing hardest against the idea of inflexible gender roles is... Fox News. A post about the caveman at the Fox Web site spends about half its word count airing the position that "this is simply sexual stereotyping of the worst kind." Fox quotes an archaeologist and a social science professor who argue for the idea of sexuality as a continuum, instead of "an either/or thing." We didn't expect Fox News to be an advocate for the prehistoric LGBTQ cause, but stranger things have happened.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.