Betwixt and Between the Sexes in Bioarchaeology

Keitlyn Alcantara

I remember my introductory osteology course, pen eagerly over paper, trying to remember all the skeletal traits that would help me be able to unravel the story of life from bony remains. One of the very first things that I learned was how to establish sex from the skeleton. I was taught that establishing sex is a method, a quantifiable known. I read countless papers that explain the measurements necessary to determine sex from isolated fragments- the toe, the chin, the clavicle. All so very certain that sex is a thing that will fit into one box or another.

Keytlin's abula (left) next to her abuelo (right) posing for their wedding picture. Both in weeding attire. This is a black and white photo.
Keitlyn’s abuela’s wedding.

In my personal life, I was used to living in boxes. I played by the rules, got good grades, said the right things at the right times, was polite and agreeable. As a woman in her late 20s, I checked yet another box, and got married. But it turned out that this was one box too many. Filing for divorce amidst the chaos of graduate school was one of the most freeing things I did in my life. Perhaps I chose academia because of its tidy divisions: academic life over here, personal, artistic, spiritual, athletic lives each in their own category over there, out of sight. But after divorce, I had no choice but to be a mess. Personal bled into academic bled into sexual identity bled into spirituality. I began to question what being a woman meant to me, what I wanted my life to look like. And there was no box for that.

Keitlyn's weeding day. Photo Hollin Brodeur
Keitlyn's mom is arranging her wedding dress while Keitlyn holds her buquet and looks what her mom is doing. This photo is black and wwhite.

“As a woman in her late 20s, I checked yet another box, and got married. But it turned out that this was one box too many.”

The Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1993), the central training manual for osteologists, focuses on the skull and the pelvis as the primary sites for determining sex. In both, observed traits can fall into one of five categories: Male, probable Male, Ambiguous, probable Female, or Female. Some men could be a bit more “gracile”, while some women could be more “robust”. The degrees of sexual dimorphism (differences in body shape and size between males and females) vary between populations, and thus the logic was that those middle-ground categories were necessary to capture any deviant skeletons that failed to conform to this binary. Deviant was bad. It muddled your statistics and left a whole lot of messy loose ends.

Standards for data collection from human skeletal remains (Seminar), In Buikstra, J. E., & In Ubelaker, D. H. (1993). Standards for data collection from human skeletal remains. Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Buikstra and Ubelaker 1993

But as I was finding out, deviant is a whole lot more like real life.

As I became a teacher myself, I started to continue passing on the decades-old logic I had been taught. It felt dry and irrelevant, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. Until one summer, when I taught bioarchaeology course for high schoolers. Their final project was to pick a topic that had piqued their interest in class, and investigate it more deeply. One student chose to explore how hormones shape the skeleton. Their project was beautiful, not only in its flawless presentation, but in its drive to push past the accepted standard to discover all the gaps in between.

Males and Females have different skeletons
Ok, but why?
Because males have testosterone and females have estrogen.
Actually, males and females have BOTH estrogen and testosterone. Males tend to have more testosterone and females tend to have more estrogen. But there is a whole lot of middle ground in between.
Is that a problem?  
No way! It’s actually pretty cool. Both these hormones help our bones stay strong in different ways. Before the huge hormonal surge of puberty, our childhood skeletons are actually pretty similar. And after our old bodies start to slow hormone production, elderly male and female skeletons look kind of alike as well. An increase in testosterone pushes muscle growth, and muscles tug on the skeleton, pulling bone to react and create a stronger, more robust surface for increased muscle attachment. But this does not necessarily clearly equate to male and female categories.

Why was this presentation such a game changer? Students flock to courses that promise them training to become exciting things like forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. As scientists, we claim that through rigorous research design, we can clearly understand the way the world works, and untangle the human experience. But in doing this, in regurgitating “facts” without constantly questioning and challenging them, and allowing them to evolve, what stories are we missing? And what “truths” about the world are we reinforcing?

Following this revelation, I changed the way that I approached teaching about skeletal sex in my classes. Teaching about binary sexes inadvertently creates boxes for our students and ourselves. It says “this has existed this way alllll the way into the ancient past, so timeless that it cannot be questioned or changed”. And the leap from the skeleton’s reality to our own is a quick one. You are either this, or you are that. No in-between. No space for inventiveness. For difference. For exploration.

Keitlyn and three of her friend ready dress like as 1920's socialites.

“Teaching about binary sexes inadvertently creates boxes for our students and ourselves.”

I built upon what I learned from the student, and started to challenge my classes to fill in those in-between spaces with their own diverse experiences. This change in syllabus had two reactions. Those who had never thought to question sex and gender were made quite uncomfortable, grappling with, and often rejecting the idea. But more importantly, those whose reality existed in this middle ground found validation. The messy middle isn’t a gap between one box and another – it is filled by people exploring the spaces between.

For me, this is the epitome of queer bioarchaeology: an exploration of boundaries that builds bravery to do things that aren’t normally done, and think things that have never been thought, infusing the chaotic beauty of your own life into your work.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s