Friday, August 6, 2021

The Grave Of An Intersex Warrior In Finland

A single individual's tomb in Finland in the municipality of Hattula, which was radiocarbon dated to between 1040 and 1174, contained remains buried with prestige weapons usually associated with men, but also jewelry and other grave goods usually associated with women (via Bernard's Blog in French).

Investigators considered the possibility that it was the grave of a man and a woman, but there was only one set of remains and it was too small for that. They considered the possibility as well that it could have been a woman who had a leadership position for whom the weapons and male associated grave goods were symbols of authority rather than tools that the decedent used in life.

The bones themselves were not in sufficiently good condition due to decomposition to determine the decedent's gender, but two femurs yielded some ancient DNA evidence. As Bernard relates:
there was very little preserved DNA and the authors were only able to test the gender of the individual. The results showed that this individual has an aneuploid karyotype: XXY (Klinefelter syndrome).
This syndrome is found in one out of 1000 to 2000 births, so while it is rare, it is an exceptional genetic condition that is observed now and then. 

Bernard identifies three other cases in the last three years where there is ancient DNA indicating either chromosomal abnormality (aneuploidy), or a gender identity suggested by grave goods that is contrary to what the person's genes would suggest.

Klinefelter syndrome increases the risk of someone's premature death somewhat, but is hardly a death sentence with people who have the condition usually living to adulthood and not discovering that they have the condition until then. According to Wikipedia (linked above):
The individual is then of a masculine character, but infertile. . . .

Under the name of Klinefelter syndrome we group together all or part of all of the following symptoms, a variability of expression being often observed and all the problems of life that cannot be linked to this syndrome: size on average larger than the siblings, possible delay in puberty, possibility during childhood of learning disabilities of language or reading, size of the testicles smaller from puberty, possibility in adolescence if there is a lack of testosterone of a low hairiness, lack of muscle tone, development of mammary glands or gynecomastia, brittle tooth enamel and osteoporosis adulthood.

The atypical expression of this syndrome therefore explains the frequent delay in its diagnosis, which is often done only as part of a search for sterility.
In other words, people with this genetic type, not infrequently, present as intersex individuals that don't fit nearly as neatly into categorization as male or female as the vast majority of people do. 

It seems clear that this medieval Finnish warrior presented in that way, and nonetheless lived a life ending with recognition as a high status member of this community.


Mitchell said...

Here is the actual paper.

I am very very very skeptical of this. The authors of the paper actually made up their own new method of chromosomal sex determination, because the available data was not enough for existing methods. And the paper is full of speculation about how the individual's culture might have treated them, on the basis of hypothetical characteristics ("An infertile man, which an XXY male is likely to have been, could have lost his manliness in the eyes of society"), speculation that seems to have zero evidence behind it.

Lead author:

Guy said...

Hum... The method they used for chromosomal sex determination seemed reasonable. And they tested it extensively with down sampled data. All the speculation was obviously that.


Mark B. said...

Old post, but ...

Many graves have been found containing women buried with typical men's artefacts - swords, knives, etc. These days such finds are trumpeted as showing that women were 'warriors' (scare quotes intended). Can I get a reality take here? Would you like your sister to do battle to the death with men armed with swords? Stop and think. Any women who tried to be warriors would have been killed during her first battle. That is, if she wasn't captured for a good gang rape. As attractive as the Warrior Woman is to today's academic set, anyone who has ever thrown a punch knows better.

andrew said...


A person with Klinefelter syndrome is not a woman of common experience of the kind that you describe, despite not having a typical male phenotype in many respects.

Mark B. said...


My interest is more in the gender stories that archaeologists have been selling in recent years. Every woman found with a knife or sword is a 'warrior,' although they know that young boys are found with swords and shields as well. Just as 'pots are not people, so weapons in a burial do not define adult 'male gender,' much less any social authority. I think it's reasonable to say that we have no idea what going on regarding the XXY individual. I'm suggesting that the current obsession with gender identity in academia says more about this paper than anything in the aftefacts.