Biological anthropologists believe that bones provide important clues as to the life of an individual. Specifically, they use bones like the pelvis and those in the skull to determine biological sex. However, bones do not tell the entire story. Anthropologists must understand the cultural context in order to provide a more accurate picture of the life of their subjects.
Anthropologists can often tell the sex of a person from a pelvis or the skull. A pelvis that has a broader sciatic notch, an open inlet, and a wider sub-pubic angle is associated with the female sex. Conversely, a pelvis that has a heart-shaped inlet, a narrow sciatic notch, and a smaller angle belongs to someone with a male sex. Another way biological anthropologists determine sex is through a skull. In people assigned female at birth, skulls are smaller and smoother. They have less pronounced brows, more vertical foreheads, smaller mastoid processes, and more pointed chins, whereas people assigned male at birth have larger skulls, more prominent brows, larger mastoid processes, and squarer jaws (Smithsonian, 2014). In this way, skeletons can be extremely useful for biological anthropologists.
However, examining skeleton does not always allow anthropologists to understand cultural norms regarding gender, such as the roles of women. First, sex is sometimes unclear, depending on the age of the individual. For instance, sexual dimorphism only becomes more prominent during and after puberty (Smithsonian, 2014). Second, older remains are difficult to analyze for sex. This is because they may be more fragmentary or damaged (Stone, Milner, Paabo, & Stoneking, 1996). Third, even if sex can be determined, it does not always determine gender roles. As Gayle Rubin summarizes, most societies separate roles for women and men, but those roles vary from society to society depending on kinship. In some cultures, men can become wives. In others, women can become husbands (Rubin, 1975, p. 181). As a result, anthropologists must be careful when sexing a skeleton so as not to make illogical generalizations about a culture.
A final point to consider is that sex is not the same as gender. Renfrew and Bahn (2010) ultimately acknowledge that gender is socially constructed (p. 169). While a person can be assigned one sex at birth, they may identify as another gender– or even no gender at all. These people challenge notions of sex. More recent remains of transgender individuals may even have surgeries that obscure skeletal sex markers (James, 2012). Therefore, a skeleton’s sex may be ambiguous or inconsistent with gender identity.
Ultimately, many identities– not just gender– are socially constructed. It is therefore important for anthropologists to complicate the ideas of identity. In terms of gender, anthropologists must analyze sex and its relation to gender and then gender roles in an individual culture. Biological anthropology is an extremely important field, but it has limits. Anthropologists should look beyond skeletal structures to make conclusions about cultures.
James, S. D. (2012, March 15). Feminization Surgery Gives Manly Women the Feminine Touch. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/facial-feminization-surgery-life-women-men/story?id=15918733
Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P. (2010). Archaeology Essentials (2nd ed.). New York, New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.
Rubin, Gayle. (1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy’” of Sex. In Rayna R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (157-210). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2014). Activity: Is the Skeleton Male or Female? Retrieved from https://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/comic/activity/pdf/Skeleton_male_or_female.pdf
Stone, A. C., G. R. Milner, S. Paabo, & M. Stoneking. (1996). Sex Determination of Ancient Human Skeletons Using DNA. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 99:231-238. Retrieved from http://www.eva.mpg.de/documents/Wiley-Blackwell/Stone_Sex_AmJPhysAnthr_1996_2109931.pdf