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

Analysis of funerary artifacts in Iron Age burials at Hasanlu, Iran indicates there were three different sets of offerings: for males, females and a 'third gender'

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Skeletons of people killed in the massacre of Hasanlu’s inhabitants around 800 B.C.E.
Skeletons of people killed in the massacre of Hasanlu’s inhabitants around 800 B.C.E.Credit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

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's 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 third gender besides “male” and “female” already 3,000 years ago.

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

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 10Credit: Haaretz

The study rattles the assumptions archaeologists 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, researchers 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.

An aerial view of the ancient site of Hasanlu.Credit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

To eliminate that bias, she ran an algorithm on hundreds 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 Schools 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 found.

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

A burial in HasanluCredit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

But the algorithm also showed that around 20 percent of the burials in Hasanlu featured a third 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 individual had a blade and a metal drinking cup, and also, a garment pin and needle. It seems the deceased performed masculine ritual activities but also wore feminine dress, says Cifarelli. This person’s 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 two 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 HasanluCredit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

The art historian theorizes that these three 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 indicators 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 two 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.

The Hasanlu loversCredit: YouTube

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 burial in HasanluCredit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Her research cannot tell us whether belonging to this putative third 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 percent 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.

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

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

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 today’s 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 skeletons perfectly preserved by the ash and rubble.

The most famous of these remains are the so-called Hasanlu Lovers, two 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 Hasanlu’s 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 years, 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 fortifications 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’s an anthropological truism that, in times of crisis, whatever divisions you have become more distinct,” she explains.

A view of the fortified citadel of HasanluCredit: 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 American societies had, collectively, more than 100 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 people who have been respected figures in Hindu culture for millennia. In some native cultures of southern Mexico, the traditional division into three 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 evidence 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 two 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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