Osteoarchaeology – part 5

Today we will look into how to determine the gender of human skeletal remains. Sometimes, Archaeologists may come across a series of skeletons (maybe from a battlefield or cemetery), and determining the age and gender distribution of a cemetery population is the first step towards making a ‘profile’, if you like, for the group, and it also provides numbers for the group under examination. Methods for determination have been developed using, as a starting point, skeletons in which the age and gender are already known.

Mass graveyard from Spanish Civil war

   There are various factors that may seem to alter the skeletal remains – for instance, quality of diet can determine the rate in which people grow and age. However, it is generally accepted that there are three main areas of the human skeleton that indicate the gender of an individual: the pelvic girdle, the skull, and the measurements of certain dimensions, particularly the femur. The pelvic girdle is accepted as the most reliable of the three methods when determining the gender. Female pelvises tend to be wider and larger than males, and they have a rounder pelvic inlet; both of these factors are to aid in childbirth.

Top – male, Bottom – female

   Naturally, this method (as with most) is not at all accurate in children, as the pelvis in young males and females remains similar until the teen years. However, in addition to the skeleton itself, there are other associated features that can provide some kind of clue as to the gender. If the skeleton was buried purposely, there may be: grave goods, fetal bones in the pelvic area, clothing, circumstances of burial (e.g. war cemetery), and presence of disease, (some diseases affect males and females in different ways).

   The age at death of a population can help us to understand and interpret its health levels, but this, and determining the age of an individual is the subject of next week’s post.

   Until then,

   Stay Curious!