A person buried nearly a thousand years ago in Suontaka, southern Finland, received as funeral offerings two swords, decorated with bronze and silver, while his garments had brooches typical of women’s clothing.
For a long time, the burial was seen as that of a female warrior, but a DNA analysis suggests that whoever occupies the tomb had an anomaly in their genome and may have had, in life, a non-binary gender identity, mixing the traditional roles of men and women.
The hypothesis comes from researchers in Finland and Germany, who reassessed all the artifacts found in Suontaka’s tomb and conducted the genomic analysis of the remains.
The results were published in an article in the specialized journal European Journal of Archeology. The team is led by Ulla Moilanen, who is about to defend her doctorate at the Department of Archeology at the University of Turku, Finland.
The mysterious burial was first identified in 1968. There was no sign of a coffin, and the bones were very degraded, so it was possible to remove only the femurs (thigh bones) from the site. This makes attempts to establish characteristics such as sex and age based solely on bony features virtually impossible.
The way was then to analyze the artifacts found in the grave. On the one hand, the presence of swords would indicate a male, although there are exceptions to this rule in medieval Scandinavia. On the other hand, brooches are typical of women’s clothing.
This is what led to the initial interpretation that the person buried would be a woman with warrior attributes. Other researchers even suggested that there were originally two bodies in the grave, but that hypothesis is now believed to have been refuted.
“Apparently the individual was native to the area and belonged to a Finnish-speaking population, judging by the type of burial and the brooches,” Moilanen explained to sheet.
“The swords are of a type normally produced in Central Europe, which indicates that the person belonged to a relatively wealthy family with good commercial connections.”
The death would have happened between the years 1050 and 1150, according to a dating made from the skeleton itself.
DNA analysis, using samples from the femurs, failed to obtain much data – most of the genetic material had already been degraded.
However, the team managed to develop a method to try to “fish” only information about the sex chromosomes, designated with the abbreviations X and Y and important for the determination of biological sex (in most of the population, women carry two X chromosomes, while men have an X and a Y chromosome).
The team’s conclusion, however, is that the individual buried in Suontaka most likely had two X and one Y chromosomes, a condition known as Klinefelter’s syndrome (the probability in favor of this idea, they say, is greater than 99.5%).
People with the syndrome often have underdeveloped male sex organs and tend to have less hair on the face and body, as well as wider hips. The presence of gynecomastia (breast enlargement) is another feature more frequent among affected individuals than in the general population.
On the other hand, there are many cases in which patients do not come to realize that they have the syndrome.
The study authors emphasize that it is not possible to simply assume that the chromosomal anomaly would have dictated an ambiguous gender role for the patient with the syndrome, but the sum of artifacts and DNA analysis may strengthen this possibility, according to them.
Genomic studies have revealed the possible presence of people with Klinefelter syndrome at archaeological sites before (the condition is not that rare, reaching somewhere between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1,000 male babies), but it is the first time that this seems to be reflected in the ambiguity of funerary goods.
According to the study coordinator, the burial took place during a time of many changes in Finnish territory. At the time, Christian missionaries were arriving in the region from the west, while the area was also under political pressure from the east, from the principality of Novgorod in present-day Russia.