Some anatomical differences between men and women are still detectable in the case of cremated remains, researchers find. In a new study, researchers present a new way to detect the sex of such cremated remains, which could be extremely useful for many archaeological and anthropological studies.

Bone fragments from cremated remains. Image credits: Claudio Cavazzuti.

Modern archaeology is a lot like forensic studies. Sure, there are still major cities and artifacts waiting to be discovered, but the focus of archaeologists has shifted from discovering new things to understanding how ancient people lived, understand their culture and day to day life.

For instance, understanding demographic data and cultural practices are key objectives of many studies. Large burial assortments are an important source of information, but the practice of cremation, which has been popular for millennia, warps and reduces the obtainable information.

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Few studies have attempted to obtain anatomical information from cremated remains, in the absence of telling artifacts or other external clues. Even the sex of a person has traditionally remained impossible to determine after cremation. Now, Durham University’s Claudio Cavazutti believes he might have a solution for that.

They first started by identifying 124 cremated individuals, buried in Italy between the 12th and 6th centuries BC, with clear clues of their sex (such as weapons for men or spindle whorls for women). So they knew whether these individuals were men or women, and they then tried to find markers which could be used to distinguish the sex. They analyzed 24 skeletal traits across these individuals finding that 8 of them predicted sex with an accuracy of 80% or more, a reliability score similar to those obtained for uncremated ancient remains.

Of course, this is still not perfectly accurate, and it greatly relies on the assumption that gender correlates with sex, which might not always be the case (for instance, it’s not impossible for a women to have been buried with weapons) — but within these limitations, the study provides a valuable tool, particularly for studies with a larger sample size. The fact that the sexing can be done with relative ease is also a bonus.

“This is a new method for supporting the sex determination of human cremated remains in antiquity. Easy, replicable, reliable.”

Researchers also note that their method would not work for modern cremation, and it’s unclear if different cremation techniques from different points in history affect the skeletal traits.

Journal Reference: Cavazzuti C, Bresadola B, d’Innocenzo C, Interlando S, Sperduti A (2019). “Towards a new osteometric method for sexing ancient cremated human remains. Analysis of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age samples from Italy with gendered grave goods. “PLoS ONE 14(1): e0209423. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209423