Since 1968, when it was first discovered in southern Finland, a 1,000-year-old grave drew a binary response from the scientific community. The occupant was clearly an individual of high status, dressed in clothing appropriate for women of that time. In addition, she (as they thought then) was buried with a sword and other accessories appropriate to warriors — thought to be mostly men — at the time. Till recently, researchers assumed that there were either two bodies — a man and woman — buried together or that the grave was evidence of female warriors in medieval Finland. Both assumptions were wrong.
Recently conducted DNA analysis of the contents of the grave, published in the European Journal of Archaeology, indicates that its occupant suffered from Klinefelter syndrome, a condition where a person has XXY chromosomes (instead of either XX or XY). And the high-status burial suggests that they were not just accepted, but respected. The message from the Finnish grave is a simple one. In terms of ossified gender identities, it is the contemporary world — or at least a large part of it — that is the aberration.
Conservatives chagrined about women in the armed forces or which toilet a transgender person will use often cite “human nature” and history as justification for their prejudice. But across societies — including in the subcontinent — gender and sexuality have existed across a spectrum, and been accepted as part and parcel of the diversity of the human species. A DNA analysis is not needed to show that human societies, even contemporary ones, are the most adept at creating differences and then assigning them an oppressive hierarchy. A thousand years ago, a person of composite biology and identity could be a warrior, perhaps even a noble. Perhaps it’s time human nature went back to its roots.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 13, 2021 under the title ‘A human warrior’.