Until relatively recently, many people would have assumed the term ‘non-binary’ had something to do with computers. Yet today, by far the most common usage is to refer to people who reject the so-called gender binary, which stipulates that one’s gender identity must be the same as one’s ‘sex assigned at birth’.
According to the 2021 Census, there are at least 30,000 non-binary people in England and Wales. And note: these individuals actually wrote “non-binary” on the census form (unlike some respondents, they didn’t misunderstand the question). But is there really such a thing as non-binary?
Does it reflect a distinct set of psychological tendencies? Or is it just a label people use because they belong to a particular subculture? Many of us would suspect the latter. Indeed, “non-binary” was barely mentioned on Twitter or searched on Google before 2014.
Enter Eleonore Pape and Nicola Ialongo – two academics from Göttingen University in Germany. They recently published a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal which argues that “non-binary minorities were systematically represented in the burial rite of prehistoric Europe”.
The authors’ method was straightforward. They inferred deceased individuals’ sex using osteological analysis, and inferred their ‘gender’ by checking whether they were buried with masculine or feminine grave goods (weapons, for example, were considered masculine). They then looked to see whether their sex and gender matched. And in roughly 10% of cases, it did not.
The authors concede that their method may be subject to error. And they acknowledge “there is no indication at all of whether such a ‘mismatched identity’ was chosen by their bearers or rather imposed on them, either in life or in death”. Yet they do posit the existence of a “non-binary minority” in pre-historic Europe.
As Pape stated in a press release, “we can no longer frame non-binary persons as ‘exceptions’ to a rule, but rather as ‘minorities’, who could have been formally acknowledged, protected and even revered”. Though her co-author clarified, “this is only one possible interpretation”.
You don’t say! Isn’t the far more reasonable interpretation that people were buried with different objects for all sorts of reasons, and there’s no reason to believe that prehistoric Europeans even distinguished between sex and gender? We in the West have only been doing it for about 10 years.
It’s logically possible, I suppose, that prehistoric Europeans did so. It’s just extremely unlikely. And the mere fact that some men were buried with female-typical objects and some women were buried with male-typical ones shouldn’t really shift our confidence.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for many academics all they have is gender theory, so the presence of flint blades or arrowheads in a woman’s grave looks like evidence of non-binary gender. The next step, I imagine, will be inferring the gender identity of pre-human hominids.