One of the archaeological world’s most famous discoveries was turned on its head this week when DNA testing suggested that a female warrior, buried some 2,500 years ago in the Altai mountains of Siberia, was actually male.
Even without this latest discovery, the mummy of the warrior ice maiden was already popular in the world of anthropology. The site of her burial was an archaeological wet dream: it contained amulets for female fertility and smaller, presumably feminine-sized, examples of funerary furniture (all of which suggest that she was female). Not only was the pig-tailed teenager adorned with unusual tattoos, but the wealth of military artifacts—shields, battle axes, and arrowheads—found in her grave suggested that she was an elite Pazyryk warrior. She was, in other words, something akin to the Amazons of Greek lore. An Amazonian ice warrior? Move over Queen Elsa.
But now, this week, a report co-authored by Alexander Pilipenko of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and Natalia Polosmak of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that the fabled ice maiden was, in fact, not so maidenly. According to their report, “reliable molecular genetic data” suggested that the remains were male. Given the presence of feminine artifacts in the gravesite, tabloid news reports were quick to identify the discovery as evidence of ancient gender-bending.
The truth of the matter may be more complicated. Online, anthropologists pointed out that perhaps the Siberian warrior was intersexed or that archaeologists had misread the grave goods. Such mistakes have precedence: until recently, scholars assumed that any Viking remains found with swords or knives were male. Once the bones of the remains were analyzed, however, the caricature of all-male Viking invasions was blown apart. More importantly, as archaeologist Kristina Killgrove points out in a carefully argued article for Forbes, reports have confused the remains of a nearby woman with those of our Siberian warrior. Our ice maiden, in other words, is still a girl.
But there is some interesting news here. The reports revealed new analyses of two sets of human remains buried on top of the ice maiden, which suggest that that the male skeleton suffered from spina bifidia. How then did he end up buried in such close proximity to a high status warrior? The cause of death is unclear, but it is possible, archaeologists suggest, that he died as a sacrifice for the Ice Maiden.
Perhaps the larger question, though, is why the possibility of gender-bending ancients fascinates us so much. This isn’t the first time that archaeological discoveries like this have made news. It’s true that there’s real cultural power to the idea that transgender is nothing new. Placing it in the distant past says that transgender is not—as some would argue—a recent and unnatural innovation. The argument that lingers beneath the surface of sensationalist news reports is that the history of transgendered individuals is as old as those of cis-gender people. If it is, then appeals to human sex as something that is “natural” have a lot less heft.
If this is what is at stake, we certainly don’t need archaeological remains to make the point. There are plenty of written records that suggest that for as long as there have been gender norms there have also been individuals—gods, warriors, and mere mortals alike—who transgressed those gender norms. But the existence of a transgendered individual in the past is hardly morally reassuring when it is accompanied by the sacrifice of people with disabilities. At the end of the day, simple human kindness and respect for others should trump historical practice.