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Scientists speak out to discredit 'gay caveman' media reports

By Phil Gast and Sarah Aarthun, CNN
  • They say the media has overblown findings from an archaeological dig
  • Czech archaeologists have found a "transsexual" or "third gender grave"
  • Sexual orientation cannot be determined from a skeleton, paleoanthropologist says
  • The term "caveman" pertains to people who lived long before these unearthed remains

(CNN) -- Reports that surfaced last week about the remains of a "gay caveman" found in the Czech Republic have prompted scientists to take on an unlikely foe -- an overhyped news media that may be overblowing the archaeological find.

"Dudes! I could be wrong, but I think that to have a 'gay caveman,' you need a skeleton that is both gay and a caveman. And this ain't either!" John Hawks, an associate professor of anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote on his blog in bold type.

Hawks joined a chorus of fellow paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and other bone experts who carefully dissected media reports about the dig, which began to increase after first appearing in British and Czech newspapers.

The reports stem from a Tuesday press conference in Prague where Czech archaeologists came forward to reveal their findings -- the unusual burial site of a man dating from 2800-2500 B.C.

"We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a 'transsexual' or 'third gender grave' in the Czech Republic," the Czech Position newspaper quoted archaeologist Katerina Semradova as saying at the press conference.

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What followed were dozens of headlines from international news organizations declaring that a "gay caveman" had been found.

The man's skeleton was found placed on its left side with the head facing west -- traditionally the position in which females in the culture were buried. Around the remains were items also typically associated with female burials instead of weapons normally found in male graves from that time period. Two other conventional male and female graves were found at the same site.

But Hawks and others say the news media misinterpreted the findings.

First, cavemen lived about 30,000 to 20,000 years ago. The remains found last week were from the Neolithic Age, about 5,000 years ago, Hawks told CNN.

And while acknowledging the "unusual" circumstances of the burial, Hawks said there is no way you can tell someone is homosexual by examining a skeleton.

Instead, the possibility of a third-gender grave -- as outlined by the archaeologists -- is more plausible, he said, noting that some cultures have a third category where, in some cases, men may have feminine characteristics or roles.

"In anthropology, you can't equate third gender with homosexuality," he said.

Kristina Killgrove, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, raised similar concerns, saying that using the term "gay" to describe the man is "the application of a modern word to an ancient population."

More research could possibly determine the gender role of the man, but not his sexual orientation, said Killgrove, who specializes in bioarchaeology.

And whatever the man's sexual orientation, Hawks said the fact that he was buried with others is "a sign of cultural acceptance," suggesting that other graves could shed some light statistically on how people were buried in that time.

The takeaway from the viral reporting? "Don't talk to British tabloids," Hawks said.