Neanderthals and Cave Lions: New Discoveries on Cultural Dynamics Among Prehistoric Predators

By Gabriele Russo1, Annemieke Milks2, Dirk Leder3, and Thomas Terberger3,4

1 Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen
2 University of Reading
3 Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage (Niedersächsisches Landesamt Für Denkmalpflege)
4 University of Göttingen

Felids have always played a primary role in the history of humanity, ranging from small domestic companion cats to formidable predators like lions, which have unfailingly evoked fascination and respect. We have shared most of our evolutionary history with lions, which has likely been partly shaped by their presence (Brantingham 1998; Stiner 2012).

The earliest ancestors of modern lions evolved in Africa, with the first fossils dating back to nearly 4 million years ago; these fossils originate from sites familiar to prehistoric archaeologists, such as Laetoli and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (Werdelin and Dehghani 2011). Around 700,000 years ago, some descendants of these lions migrated to Europe (Lewis, Pacher and Turner 2010), and subsequently evolved into the cave lion (Panthera spelaea) by 400,000 years ago. This species spread across Eurasia until its extinction around 13,000 years ago (Stuart and Lister 2011).

Throughout the same extended period, various hominin species also inhabited Eurasia. The earliest interaction between humans and lions is documented in Western Europe, specifically in level TD10-1 of the Gran Dolina site at Atapuerca (Blasco et al. 2010). Here, the remains of lions butchered by Middle Pleistocene hominins approximately 350,000 years ago were discovered. Increasing evidence of human-predator interactions becomes evident with the arrival of our species (Homo sapiens) in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, approximately 40,000 years ago. These foragers introduced a new dimension to the relationship between humans and lions, embracing both indirect expressions like portable and rock art (E.g., Wehrberger 1994; Conard 2003; Clottes and Azéma 2005) and direct engagements. This includes the utilization of lion body parts for tools or ornaments (e.g., Vanhaeren and d’Errico 2006; Cueto et al. 2016) as well as an intensified exploitation of cave lions (e.g., Kitagawa et al. 2012; Wojtal et al. 2020). However, the evidence of interactions with lions in the long period between the site of Gran Dolina and the Upper Paleolithic—usually defined as the Middle Paleolithic—remained overlooked and was often disregarded as occasional exploitation due to interspecies competition. See Figure 11. During this time, Western Europe was inhabited by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), an extinct human species closely related to our own. While during the 20th century Neanderthals were usually depicted as primitive, less intelligent and brutish, in recent years, increased evidence has overturned this view (see Wragg Sykes 2020; Romagnoli, Rivals and Benazzi 2022). Our recent study sheds light on a previously-unexplored aspect of our extinct relatives: their dynamic relationship with one of the most formidable predators with which they shared territory: the cave lion.

Figure 11.
Paleolithic sites with direct evidence of human-cave lion interaction in the form of subsistence activity, culture (i.e., rock or mobile art), or both. 1 Einhornhöhle, 2 Siegsdorf, 3 Gran Dolina, 4 Caverna delle Fate, 5 Chez-Pinaud (Jonzac), 6 Cueva de Bolomir, 7 Le Portel, 8 Grotte du Renne, 9 Hohlenstein-Stadel, 10 Vogelherd, 11 Hohle Fels, 12 La Garma, 13 Chauvet, 14 Peyrat (Saint-Rabier), 15 Pair-non-Pair, 16 La Gravette, 17 Grotte Duruthy, 18 Pavlov I, 19 Dolní Věstonice I, 20 Trois-Frères, 21 Grotte de la Vache (Ariège).

We recently reported the discovery of bone remains bearing cut marks from a lion’s paw, which were part of a lion pelt dating back over 190,000 years and the oldest direct evidence of a large predator being hunted and killed in human history (dated to 48,000 years ago) in Scientific Reports (Russo et al., 2023). Here, we give an overview of that research.

Materials and Methods

We conducted an examination of cave lion remains from two distinct sites. The first set was obtained from Einhornhöhle (in German, Einhornhöhle means “Unicorn Cave”), a cave situated in central Germany within the low Harz mountain range which borders the North European Plain. Three paw bone elements, including two toe bones where the claws were attached, were recovered. These cave lion bones originated from layer H, located in a gallery about 30 meters away from the prehistoric cave entrance, underlying a deposit dated to approximately 190,000 years ago, giving layer H a minimum age. One of the toe bones exhibited cut marks, which were analyzed using 3D microscopy to identify the nature of the incisions.

The second set of cave lion bones constitutes a partial skeleton from a single individual unearthed at the open-air site of Siegsdorf in southeast Germany (Bavaria), at the feet of the Alps. This well-known skeleton, previously documented in other publications (e.g., Gross 1992; Barnett et al. 2016) and directly dated to around 48,000 years ago (Rosendahl and Darga 2004), displayed cut marks on various bones, including ribs, hip, and hind bones. During the re-examination of these bones, we identified human-induced modifications associated with the lion kill, previously unreported and henceforth referred to as “hunting lesions.” To reconstruct the events leading to the creation of these marks, we employed 3D microscopy to measure the modifications, along with forensic reconstructions utilizing micro-computed tomography scans and digital models to depict the ballistic trajectory.


The scores on the lion paw bone from the Einhornhöhle exhibit a straight trajectory and taper at both ends, features typically associated with cut marks created by stones – lithics – with a cutting edge during the butchering process of a carcass. To confirm this inference, we employed 3D microscopy, which revealed additional microscopic features. These features not only align with typical cut marks but also suggest that the tool used to create them was intentionally modified – retouched – indicating it was not a simple lithic flake. See Figure 12. Similar artifacts were also discovered in the same layers where the lion remains were found.

Figure 12. Cave lion remains from Einhornhöhle Area 1. Phalanx III and close-up view × 30 and × 500 magnifications of the cut marks, and the other unmodified bones.

The cut marks were precisely located in correspondence with the tendon attachment. This, coupled with the fact that there were only paw elements from a cave lion in layer H, suggests that they resulted from the skinning process and that the targeted final product was the pelt with paws and claws still attached. The bones represented all that remained from a lion pelt. The partial skeleton of the Siegsdorf cave lion exhibited cut marks that were already documented. These cut marks are textbook examples, easily visible to the naked eye and microscopically distinct from a few other traces on the bones that naturally occurred after exposure to environmental elements.

One of the ribs showed a partial perforation previously associated with carnivore gnawing in earlier publications. However, typical carnivore bites create two teeth marks on each side of the bone, formed as the jaw closes, while the perforation on the lion rib exhibited a single mark. To explore the hypothesis of a carnivore bite, we compared the measurements of the puncture on the rib to punctures on bones created by modern large carnivores, including lions, hyenas, bears, and wolves. The modification on the lion proved to be both larger and deeper than any of the other carnivore bite marks.

We then examined the possibility that humans were responsible for this perforation by comparing it to perforations created by spears and javelins, defined as hunting lesions, including both archaeological and experimental data. This examination revealed that the puncture on the lion’s rib not only perfectly aligned within the range of hunting lesions but was also more closely aligned with punctures created by wooden-tipped spears. See Figure 13. The ballistic reconstruction further revealed that the lion must have been lying on its right side at the moment of the fatal stab.

Figure 13. On the left: Siegsdorf lion skeleton with distribution of observed anthropogenic modifications. Elements highlighted in gray represent those that were originally unearthed. On the right: Details of the puncture on Siegsdorf ’s cave lion rib.

While examining the skeleton, we uncovered previously-unreported bone modifications: notch-like damage on the ribs and one vertebra. These differed from carnivore-induced damage and from natural modifications on the same elements. Their location and morphology more closely resemble another type of hunting lesion called drag marks (so-called as they result from the violent impact of a projectile hitting bone transversally; (Duches et al. 2016). Few studies explore this category of hunting lesion, and none analyze drag marks created by Neanderthal technologies such as wooden spears/javelins or stone-tipped spears. However, computer tomography revealed these modifications were made when the animal carcass was fresh, suggesting a connection to either lion hunting or processing.

Discussion and Conclusion

The presence of only lion paw bones at the Einhornhöhle suggests that the lion was processed elsewhere. Simultaneously, the absence of other evidence makes it unlikely that the claws were worn as pendants or used as aesthetic components for clothing. Instead, it is more likely that they were part of a pelt introduced to the cave. See Figure 14.

Figure 14. Diagram with the interpretation of the chain of events involving the cave lion pelt from Einhornhöhle: The lion was skinned elsewhere, and its pelt was brought into the cave, eventually being abandoned.

Soft skins or pelts seldom survive in prehistoric contexts. However, their presence at archaeological sites can be deduced through indirect evidence, such as skinning marks on bones, tools associated with hide work, micro-traces left on stone tools, or even the latitude and environmental context of the site. Such evidence is present in the Paleolithic record as far back as 500,000 years ago or earlier (Rodríguez, Willmes and Mateos 2021); worked skins are usually thought to have been used as clothing or bedding elements to cope with the climate.

Zooarchaeological records indicate that Neanderthals exploited various animals, including large carnivores like bears and wolves (e.g., Gómez-Olivencia et al. 2018; Romandini et al. 2018). Lions were also on the menu, even for pre-Neanderthals (Blasco et al. 2010). Therefore, it is unsurprising that these hominins utilized the skin of this large predator. The uniqueness of the lion pelt from Einhornhöhle lies in the fact that this has never been demonstrated before in the entire archaeological record, including for contemporaneous H. sapiens in Africa, who also coexisted with lions. Additionally, the deliberate retention of aesthetic elements such as claws in this skin is a novel aspect. This detail is crucial as it underscores the care and effort Neanderthals invested in preserving these elements in the skin, a behavior not recorded for any other exploited species.

The lion holds meaning in many modern African indigenous cultures (Ontiri et al. 2019) and also carries great symbolic value in modern pop culture. The same was true for Upper Paleolithic H. sapiens. The ivory sculpture of a lion man found at the Swabian cave of Hohelnstein-Stadel (Germany), dated to about 40,000 years ago, is a well-known example of this (Wehrberger 1994). Therefore, we argue that the careful processing and use of lion pelt with claws from Einhornhöhle represent evidence of the capacity of Neanderthals to engage culturally with large predators.

Figure 15. Diagram depicting the interpretation of the chain of events involving the cave lion skeleton from Siegsdorf: The lion was either actively hunted using javelins to disadvantage it, then received a coup de grâce with a wooden spear; or it was ambushed and killed while asleep, butchered at the kill site without bone breakage, and subsequently, the carcass was abandoned.

On the other hand, the skeleton of the lion from Siegsdorf offers a unique snapshot of a Neanderthal day. See Figure 15. The lion was either actively hunted, using javelins – that created the drag marks – to disadvantage it and then received a coup de grâce with a wooden spear, creating the partial puncture. Alternatively, it may have been ambushed and killed while asleep. Regardless of the hunting method, the lion was subsequently carefully butchered, eviscerated, and left at the site without breaking the bones.

Neanderthals were skilled hunters and employed sophisticated techniques to pursue their prey. They strategically used spears both for impaling and throwing by targeting their prey’s vital areas (e.g., Boëda et al. 1999; Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al. 2018). Archaeological data suggests that Neanderthals were selective in their hunting practices, focusing on specific species and individuals at particular sites and times while opportunistically hunting any creature they could capture on other occasions (see Romagnoli, Rivals and Benazzi 2022 for a comprehensive review).

However, the active hunting of a large predator such as a cave lion by these hominins was never documented before and was previously associated only with the technological proficiency of H. sapiens. The remains of the cave lion from Siegsdorf represent, therefore, not only a testament to Neanderthal hunting abilities but also the earliest evidence thus far of a large predator hunt in human history.

Our study adds a new dimension to the understanding of Neanderthal culture. The interactions of these hominins with large predators included the cultural use of lion body parts and the ability to hunt them, a behavior initially attributed exclusively to our species.

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Stratified Bronzes: The afterlife of the Etruscan and Roman votive offerings in the sacred pool at San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy

Jacopo Tabolli
Università per Stranieri di Siena

The village of San Casciano dei Bagni lies in the southernmost municipality of the province of Siena, Italy. The current administrative territory forms a ‘belt’ that unifies different areas, joining the Valdichiana to the east, the Val di Paglia to the south, the slopes of Mount Amiata to the west (with the conic peak of Radicofani) and the springs of Valdorcia and Mount Cetona to the north. See Figure 16. This varied landscape is characterized by rolling hills, large river valleys, mountains, and forests. It represents a profound distinction between the southern part of Etruria’s volcanic rocks and the internal northern part, where clay hills and travertine plateaus and mountains prevail. In terms of geomorphology, this significant fracture allows for the concentration of numerous thermo-mineral springs that mark the landscape just as much today as they did in the past, both culturally and economically.

Figure 16. Location of San Casciano dei Bagni in the system of valleys including Chiana, Orcia, and Paglia (After Tabolli 2021).

The territory of San Casciano dei Bagni currently borders Umbria to the east and Latium to the south. This echoes the situation since Mediaeval times, during which the castle of San Cassiano functioned as a border between Tuscany and the Papal feuds. This marginal location—always at the ‘border’ both physically and politically—also reflects the ancient control of the Etruscan city-state of Chiusi. Importantly, it was to Chiusi that the area of San Casciano dei Bagni belonged in the first millennium BC, and San Casciano dei Bagni made up Chiusi’s southern territory, marking the border across the rivers Paglia and Stridolone with the city-states of Orvieto and Vulci (Tabolli 2021). With the proto-urban rise of the city of Chiusi between the 10th and the 9th century BC, this key southern and peripheral area functioned as a gateway connecting Chiusi with the coastal towns (Vulci in particular; for more regarding the link between Vulci and the River Paglia, see Michetti 2003). Necropoleis along the major roads descending from the Cancelli Pass (see most recently Palmieri 2023) dating from the Orientalizing, Archaic and Hellenistic periods testify to the presence of rural communities which were mostly directly controlled by Chiusi (Rosselli 2021). The Romanization of the area began already in the late 3rd century BC and came to a head in 89-87 BC, when the entire territory formally received Roman citizenship. Chiusi became a municipium by the name of Clusium (Paolucci 1988a; Paolucci 1988b; most recently Carpentiero and Felici 2021).

When compared to other territories under the control of Chiusi (and both in Etruscan and Roman times), the area of San Casciano dei Bagni has been marginal in the archaeological literature. See Figure 17. With the exception of eleven Roman artefacts, including a marble Aphrodite of Doidalsas type found in the area of Doccia della Testa (the Head Shower) (Ghisellini 2009; Iozzo 2013; Paolucci 2014; Mariotti 2023a) currently preserved in the Medici Thermal Portico built in the 1600s, it is only in the last twenty years that archaeological excavations have been undertaken at the votive deposit of Doccia della Testa and in the necropolis of Balena.

Figure 17. Sites of the territory of San Casciano dei Bagni mentioned in the text. 1) San Casciano dei Bagni; 2) Bagno Grande; 3) Doccia della Testa; 4) Ficoncella, San Giorgio and Santa Maria; 5) Balena. Map produced by the author.

In 2003, at Doccia della Testa a concentration of bronze votive offerings came to light, testifying to the resilience of a sacred space linked to thermal water between the 3rd century BC and the late 2nd century AD (Salvini 2014; most recently Mariotti 2023b). In 2007, in the locality of Balena (a toponym that directly refers of the presence of ancient balnea), a 2nd to 1st centuries BC necropolis was excavated in an area that had been severely looted in the 1970s (Tamburini 1979). Five long dromoi with small niches for cremations represent what was a typical burial custom for the Chiusi area at the time of Romanization. Inscriptions on the tiles closing the tombs follow the linguistic transition of the local community. Texts were written in Etruscan at the end of the 2nd century BC. Latin scripts appeared at the passage between 2nd and 1st centuries BC, although they still refer to the use of Etruscan language. By the first quarter of the 1st century BC, inscriptions were all in Latin (Maggiani 2014; most recently Mariotti 2023b). Although no associated settlement has yet been identified, this necropolis belonged to a middle-class rural community which probably worked for one of the sanctuaries associated with the thermal mineral springs.

Since 1585, mentions of a Roman complex in the locality of Monte Santo and Bagno Grande (Sacred Mountain and Great Bath) have appeared in archival documents (Mariotti and Tabolli 2021). This is the uppermost spring of the valley of the River Elvella, one of the main tributaries of the River Paglia. See Figure 18. Here in the 1600-1700s, thermal medical doctors recorded accounts of Roman architecture still visible in the area where, after an earthquake in 1575, a small portico around two open-air pools had been erected (Fortini, Ledda and Morelli 2023). Today, the thermal mineral spring still flows with 25 litres per second at 39-40°C, making it one of the richest thermal mineral springs of the more than forty known within the territory. Although the toxicity of the water makes ingestion inadvisable, the healing powers associated with the spring included the treatment of external diseases (skin and genitals in particular). The water was also thought to stimulate fertility, in a surprising analogy for the record of bronze Etruscan and Roman ex votos (Tabolli 2023a, and see below).

Figure 18. Aerial View of the Bagno Grande. Photo courtesy of Gabriele Forti; © SABAP_SI and Comune di San Casciano dei Bagni.

Geophysical surveys and excavations between 2019 and 2023 brought to light a multi-stratified sacred site, dating from the late 4th century BC to the early 5th century AD. Although excavations are still ongoing, we have identified at least one ‘temple’ from Roman Imperial times that had a tetrastyle entrance oriented towards the south and six columns inside the building holding the displuviate roof. See Figure 19. This ‘temple’ was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD and was abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century AD, probably in connection with the Christianization of the area (Mariotti and Tabolli 2021; Salvi, Mariotti and Tabolli 2023; Osanna and Tabolli 2023). At the centre of the ‘temple’ was an elongated travertine pool which collected the water from the main spring and which probably functioned as the cella. We tend to exclude that this pool had a function related to healing baths not only due to its depth (of over 4 meters) and for the relevant absence of access points, but especially because the sacred water inside the pool received a multitude of offerings (Tabolli 2023b). This consistency with regards to the materiality of the offerings is certainly connected to the link with the thermal water. In different ways and at different periods from the 3rd century BC to the late 4th century AD, the sacred pool of the sanctuary welcomed a variety of offerings; nevertheless, there were mainly made of bronze and parts of natural elements. Almost no ceramic offerings nor animal bones were deposited in the holy waters.

Figure 19. Hypothetical reconstruction of the temple during Imperial Roman times (After Mariotti, Salvi and Tabolli 2023; drawing by G. Ghelli and C. Felici).

The Roman Imperial offerings that appear most common are certainly the coins (Pardini 2023; Pardini and Carbone 2023). In many cases, these seem to have been freshly minted. The concentration of the coins seems to celebrate particularly important moments during the reconstruction of the temple. In the age of Tiberius, during the Flavian period, in the years of Trajan, under the Antonines and, finally, between the late 3rd and early 4th century AD. Two sets of stairs on both sides of the temple functioned as a means of access to an upper area inside the building that possibly covered the northern half of the pool with a podium. As in many krene sanctuaries, the water would rise into the uncovered part of the sacred pool at the centre of the temple (Mariotti 2023c).

Figure 20. Groups of offerings inside the earlier pool (after Tabolli 2023b).

Inscriptions on the 2nd century BC to 1st century AD ex votos as well as in travertine altars dating to the late 2nd century AD provide a preliminary list of gods and goddesses worshipped at the sanctuary (Maggiani 2023 and Gregori 2023). By contrast, in the Etruscan inscriptions, only one name of a goddess (?) appears: Flere Havens, the Numen of the Spring. In Latin, a multitude of deities is attested: Fons Caldus, Apollo, Fortuna (also in the form of Fortuna Primigenia), Asclepius, Hygeia and Isis. The presence of bronze miniature clubs may refer to Hercules, while the offering of a dancing Lares beween the 1st and the 2nd centuries AD testifies to the action of communal- and even family-based cults within the sanctuary (Bischeri 2023: 159, no. 18).

The 1st century AD ‘temple’ with the elongated pool at its core existed on top of an earlier structure identified in 2023. This earlier structure had a similar shape, but was oriented slightly towards the southeast. It is still too early to define this structure as a ‘temple’ or rather as an ‘enclosure’ surrounding the spring. The dismantling of this structure took place between at the beginning of the 1st century AD. At this time, there appears to have been an oval travertine pool at the centre of the earlier structure. It is now located over 3 meters down and lies underneath the Roman Imperial pool. The oval pool from the earlier structure was dismantled and filled with an impressive number of bronze and natural offerings (Tabolli 2023b). The presence of a bronze representation of a lightning bolt on top of a thick layer of tiles that was used to seal this earlier dismantled pool references the ritual of fulgur conditum (Tabolli 2023a; on this ritual see Mercattili 2005).

Despite the action of hot water and the pressure brought about by the abandonment of the site in the 5th century when the columns of the ‘temple’ were laid into the pool to protect its content, the stratification of votive offerings represent a series of deliberate ritual actions (Tabolli 2023b). See Figure 20. Careful examination showed that those groups of objects that at the beginning seemed to have been piled in an almost random way, were revealed by the continuation of the excavation to have been clearly defined and separated by empty spaces.

The stratification within each group seems to follow a series of common rules:

  • Representations of large appendages, such as arms, hands, feet, or legs are associated with the uppermost part of the deposition in each group (and therefore were placed at the end).
  • The largest statues appear at the bottom of each group.
  • Infants in swaddling clothes and representations of babies are concentrated especially along the internal sides of the pool.
With the exception of these general trends, each group follows different patterns. It is interesting to outline, for example, how the western group finds its core with the tall trunk of an oak tree (Tabolli 2023b: 108-109) encircled by the the three levels of a) arms, b) heads and c) a standing female statue (Papini 2023). See Figure 21. It is likely that this oak tree does not have a static function, but rather a ritual one; it probably represents a xoanon. The largest number of statues portraying deities was in the northeastern group (Tabolli 2023b: 106-107). Here, on top of the deposition of a man wearing a toga, were laid: a) a statue of a dancing Apollo holding a polyvisceral plate, b) the statue of the Flere Havens, c) two heads, d) arms, e) a foot with dedication to Fortuna Primigenia and f) a series of infants in swaddling. The concentration of deities in this group cannot be coincidental. Therefore, we suggest that, at the time of ritual burying of the ex votos in the act of fulmen condere, the social agencies probably respected the assemblages of the offerings and how there were already grouped in the temple when placing them in association within the dismantled earlier pool.


Figure 21. The northwestern group. Here, the arms, heads and the statue of a woman in the act of offering (deposited upside down) (After Tabolli 2023b)

Although we have no clue of the previous life of the votive offerings in the sanctuary before the beginning of the 1st century BC, their afterlife within the stratification inside the pool under the lightning bolt reflects part of the cultural and religious biography of these finds. The excavation of this votive deposit with the incomparable occasion of documenting an intact context allows us to identify occurrences of the manipulation of ex votos as part of their afterlife. Of the many examples, the most complex at present is a second polyvisceral plate on a circular base (Tabolli 2023a; Tabolli and Gregori 2023). See Figure 22. This find in its current shape does not have any direct corollary but was clearly assembled in this form at a later stage before the sealing of this earlier deposit around the reign of Tiberius. Originally, the polyvisceral plate displayed a sequence of internal organs as seen via a laparotomy cut: the trachea, lungs, heart, diaphragm, oesophagus, stomach, liver spleen, and intestines. Rather than viewed via a natural dissection of the body, these organs appear in accordance with the sequence of opening up a human body.

Figure 22. San Casciano dei Bagni, Bagno Grande. Polyvisceral plate, 1st century CE. Photo by Francesco Marsili. Copyright SABAP-SI. Excavation permit: Comune di San Casciano dei Bagni.

The presence of a bronze surgical gouge in close proximity allowed us to suggest that the knowledge and practice of medicine was a focal component of the healing rituals at Bagno Grande. This bronze votive polyvisceral dates possibly to the 2nd century BC, although a precise chronological assessment is difficult because comparable examples are all in terracotta and are generically assigned to the 4th to 2nd century BC (Tabolli 2023a). This object – which was probably preserved somewhere in the sanctuary – was later collected and assembled atop a circular base, joined with four animal legs. An inscription engraved on the circular base mentions the dedication by Atimetus, a servus belonging to the family of Sulpicia Triaria, to Fortuna (Tabolli and Gregori 2023). Atimetus might be the man represented with his torso on top of the trachea of the polyvisceral plate. According to the inscription, the final dedication dates to the beginning of the 1st century AD (Gregori 2023).

This brief account of the excavation at San Casciano dei Bagni demonstrates both the complexity and the potential of unlocking the stratigraphy of the bronze ex votos. The continuation of the excavation over the next years will allow us to complete the analysis of the sequence of depositions inside the sacred pool as well as to better understand the general landscape where this Etruscan and Roman sanctuary functioned around its thermal mineral spring.

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A straightforward question, complex results, emotional reactions: Testing the hypothesis of gender-binarity on prehistoric burials in Europe

Eleonore Pape1 and Nicola Ialongo2
1Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
2University of Göttingen

Gender not only plays a crucial role in the social discourse of contemporary society; it is also an inherent part of the data we, as archaeologists, assess and analyse in order to understand how societies were structured, which roles men and women fulfilled, which activities they may have carried out, and for which reasons they may have travelled over variable distances. The interest in gender as the social expression of how sex was perceived and lived in the past has come more and more into focus since the 1980s, following the separation of (biologically-determined) sex and (socially-constructed) gender into two independent concepts, each potentially knowable in the archaeological domain.

This distinction makes a lot of sense especially in burial archaeology, as the identification of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is actually delegated to distinct professional figures. Simply put, archaeologists look at grave goods to make out the social/ritual representation of gender of deceased individuals, while bodily remains provide osteologists and (more and more frequently) geneticists with the evidence they need to identify biological sex. The realization that sex and gender are actually different aspects of one’s identity is a breakthrough towards an appraisal of ancient societies’ sex-based differentiations that is grounded in the objective quantification of patterns rather than subjective interpretation of individual cases.

Imagine a world in which one could only be either male or female–i.e., a purely binary scheme. Say that we find a rich burial filled with weapons. Due to the quantities of evidence throughout history (and prehistory) suggesting that weapons are recurrent masculine attributes, archaeologists may not think twice before assigning a masculine gender to the person buried with them. Now imagine that an osteologist tries to determine biological sex: no matter how many times they repeat their measurements, the metrics just do not fit the expectations for male bones. ‘Well,’ – the archaeologist would think – ‘everyone knows that sex-determination based on bones has some error margin!’, and they would eventually side with millennia of historical evidence. To cut the story short, more than a century after the burial’s discovery, aDNA analyses confirm that the osteologist was right: the warrior was actually a woman. This story is (more or less) actually true: it reflects research on the famous Viking warrior burial at Birka in Sweden (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., 2017; Price et al., 2019)… and of several other ‘enigmatic burials’ scattered around the world that see members of a given biological sex – no matter which – buried with attributes that are typical of the opposite one.

While most research on these exceptional cases revolves around trying to explain their very exceptionality, we rather ask a different, simpler question: How many biological women were buried with masculine attributes, and vice versa? The massive amount of sex and gender data generated in over a century of research is, in theory, verifiable. Simply acknowledging that a given gender may not always ‘fit’ the biological sex of a person and that past societies may have admitted more variability than previously thought, is, however, truly novel and allows us to push the boundaries of archaeological knowledge constructively.

‘Binary’ vs. ‘non-binary’: a pragmatic approach

We use the term ‘binary’ in a purely computational way and with no connection to how this term is used in common language to define one’s identity. In computational terms, a variable that can give only two outcomes is ‘binary’. A coin flip, a light switch, a yes/no question are all common examples of binary variables. So is sex in current archaeology. No matter the complexity at play, when we reduce ancient demographics to simplified tables, we always feel the urge to assign each individual a sex chosen between two possible variables: male and female. And rightfully so, for two very good reasons! Firstly, as far as chromosomes are concerned, there are (mainly) two possible outcomes (XX and XY; though aneuploidies do occur, they are so rare that they are scarcely relevant in statistical terms). Secondly, as we found in our study (Pape and Ialongo 2023), gendered grave goods are overwhelmingly associated with their corresponding biological sex. Here it is important to emphasize that this was overwhelmingly evident from our study, but not exclusively observed. For example, there were cases in which individuals buried during the Neolithic and Late Bronze Age were interred with grave goods typical of the opposite sex. This is where our approach diverges from the usual one: while it is common practice to ‘squeeze’ these cases into a binary scheme – each time assigning priority to either biological or archaeological interpretations – we argue that it would make more sense to ditch the ‘binary system’ in favour of a ‘quaternary’ one.

Figure 23. The standard binary model, and the quaternary (non-binary) model we employ in our study (F: female / feminine; M: male / masculine). Modified after Pape and Ialongo 2023, Fig. 2.

While the binary scheme works most of the time, in those cases in which biological sex contrasts with archaeological gender, we always feel the urge to choose one. We argue that this choice arbitrarily defies the complexity of the analytical evidence, which instead should be preserved without feeling forced to make a judgment about which variable is the ‘most important’ one. In short, we suggest adopting a four-variable system that can give four different outcomes, instead of only two. See Figure 23. Geneticists and osteologists would determine biological sex (male or female) and archaeologists would determine archaeological gender (masculine or feminine), with at least four possible outcomes being (female + feminine), (male + masculine), (female + masculine) (male + feminine). This way of conceptualising sex and gender in the burial record opens the way to the objective quantification of supposedly ‘exceptional cases’ that escape the binary norm.

Our findings

How frequently are individuals buried with grave goods that supposedly ‘belong’ to the opposite sex? Answering this question was the aim of a study we published in the spring of 2023. We quantified sex and gender determinations for 1252 graves distributed in several Neolithic and Bronze Age burial sites from Central Europe (Pape and Ialongo 2023). We found that c. 90% of fully-determined individuals have grave goods that ‘match’ their biological sex (i.e., male + masculine and female + feminine), while c. 10% fall outside the ‘binary norm’, meaning that they are buried with equipment that is usually associated with the opposite biological sex (male + feminine and/or female + masculine). Realising that such ‘non-binary’ cases may not be ‘exceptions,’ but rather rarely represented minorities could substantially change the way we incorporate them in our interpretive narratives. The point is not whether or not there was a binary gender pattern in prehistoric Europe – which there clearly was – but rather whether the social norms that regulated gender dynamics had room for more variants than those two most strongly represented. To put it bluntly—although it may have been uncommon—it might not have been so ‘exceptional’ for a woman to do a man’s job (or vice versa).

The existence of a ‘non-binary minority’, however, can only persist if proven not to be the result of determination errors. Sources of error can be manifold, including systematic error margins of analytical methods, osteological mis-determinations and the unreliability of the archaeological determination of gendered attributes. Unfortunately, the potential impact of error margins from many of these sources is, for the time being, not determinable retrospectively. However, we argue that mis-determinations, in theory, do not necessarily fall on individuals that simply do not fulfil our pre-existing expectations. Most of our attempts to test to what extent sex/gender-opposites may be more affected by analytical error remained inconclusive. At the same time, only 30% of the 1252 individuals in our sample have both a sex and a gender determination, which means that an astonishing amount of data is excluded from any possible analysis.

Overall, this suggests that, until further examinations are carried out, the number of ’non-binary individuals’ is just as likely to increase as it is to decrease. Interestingly, we also found that individuals with gendered grave goods are 30% more likely to obtain an osteological sex estimate than individuals without grave goods…a trend which strongly supports the existence of a confirmation bias towards the binary model. Simply put, we know that existing sex and gender data is flawed by circular argumentation (see Figure 24); what we do not know is whether contradictory estimates are, in fact, the results of error. Only further analyses will make it possible to answer this question.

Figure 24. Flowchart illustrating the common examination of the association of biological sex and archaeological gender in prehistoric burials and the danger of circular argumentation. Modified after Pape and Ialongo 2023, Fig. 3.

How did we get here?

The idea of our study was born out of a heated coffee-break-discussion at the University of Göttingen, in which we argued over the impact that recently published studies – such as the reappraisal of the Viking-age ‘warrioress’ from Birka (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., 2017; Price et al., 2019), or of a Holocene huntress from Peru (Haas et al., 2020) – could have on our understanding of preliterate societies. In our review of gender-focused literature in the prehistoric filed, we could not help but notice a conspicuous gap between theoretical and empirical research: the former focusses on developing new models and theories, but rarely tests them empirically; the latter is mostly concerned with generating and quantifying data, but seldom takes new models and theories into account. Our goals then became clearer: we would need to test gender-theories based on quantifiable variables and second, design a gender-sensitive methodological approach that did not necessitate expert-knowledge, and that could be systematically applied in mainstream-research. The open call for a session at the 2021 EAA Annual Meeting in Kiel entitled “To gender or not to gender” organized by B. Gaydarska and colleagues (Gaydarska et al., 2023) provided the ideal opportunity to follow up on our original aim. With this, the regional and chronological scope of our preliminary test was set: we collected, quantified, compared and analysed data from the abundant literature of single inhumation sites in Neolithic and Bronze Age Central Europe and executed our experiment as a first trial among peers. Since then, the work is still ongoing.

Some reactions to a fairly touchy topic

As is to be expected, the publication of our study provoked quite a number of reactions from both the public and the research community, spanning supportive comments on e.g. the balanced approach between divergent perspectives within the discipline, disagreements regarding terminologies and classifications used and concerns regarding the supposed ‘wokeness’ of our research. We cannot hide our satisfaction upon learning that an Instagram post on our research by a local newspaper generated more attention than the opening of a new vending machine sponsored by a famous Tiktoker. Nevertheless, we are well aware of the political implication of archaeological studies touching upon gender and we are happy to take a brief stance on two of the critical points brought to our attention in the following.

One chief objection which we encountered was that our non-binary model nevertheless still reproduces binary stereotypes. We would rather argue that our non-binary model is precisely what has allowed us to analytically confirm that the burial representation of gender in prehistoric Europe is overwhelmingly binary. The validity of binary categories in archaeology is certainly a delicate point, one which is also currently being explored and re-evaluated by many colleagues in their respective fields (e.g. Flaherty et al., 2023; Gaydarska et al., 2023; Rehmann-Sutter et al., 2023). However, a theoretical model is only as good as the evidence it can explain, which in turn entails that gender-sensitive approaches should not be adopted in spite of, but rather in synergy with the enormous amounts of evidence that ‘traditional’ research has produced over more than one century of fieldwork… lest we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We conclude with our favourite quote from one of several independent thinkers who felt compelled to (privately) reach out to us, and let us know how intimately they relate to our research endeavour: ‘Who funded the shit you just put out? You probably need a ‘woke’ angle to receive funding’. We are actually thankful for these emotional comments, because they show that archaeology does matter in the eye of the greater public. It is only up to us to produce honest research that does not support this or that worldview, but that transparently addresses open questions through testable hypotheses.

  • Flaherty, T.M., Johnson, L.J., Woollen, K.C., Lopez, D., Gaddis, K., Horsley, S.L., Byrnes, J.F., 2023. Speaking of Sex: Critical Reflections for Forensic Anthropologists. Humans 3, 251–270.
  • Gaydarska, B., Rebay-Salisbury, K., Ramírez Valiente, P., Fries, J.E., Hofmann, D., Augereau, A., Chapman, J., Mina, M., Pape, E., Ialongo, N., Nordholz, D., Bickle, P., Haughton, M., Robb, J., Harris, O., 2023. To Gender or not To Gender? Exploring Gender Variations through Time and Space. Eur. j. archaeol 26, 271–298.
  • Haas, R., Watson, J., Buonasera, T., Southon, J., Chen, J.C., Noe, S., Smith, K., Llave, C.V., Eerkens, J., Parker, G., 2020. Female hunters of the early Americas. Sci. Adv. 6, eabd0310.
  • Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Kjellström, A., Zachrisson, T., Krzewińska, M., Sobrado, V., Price, N., Günther, T., Jakobsson, M., Götherström, A., Storå, J., 2017. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. Am J Phys Anthropol 164, 853–860.
  • Pape, E., Ialongo, N., 2023. Error or Minority? The Identification of Non-binary Gender in Prehistoric Burials in Central Europe. CAJ 1–21.
  • Price, N., Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Zachrisson, T., Kjellström, A., Storå, J., Krzewińska, M., Günther, T., Sobrado, V., Jakobsson, M., Götherström, A., 2019. Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581. Antiquity 93, 181–198.
  • Rehmann-Sutter, C., Hiort, O., Krämer, U.M., Malich, L., Spielmann, M., 2023. Is sex still binary? Medizinische Genetik 35, 173–180.

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