In 1968, archaeologists found an unusual medieval grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, southern Finland, where they found the remains of a high-status warrior, alongside a sword, brooches, and woolen clothes typical of feminine fashion of the era. The burial contents indicated that the remains belonged to a female warrior, challenging strict gender roles rooted in modern, Western mindsets. But it turns out the burial is even more unusual. More recent DNA analysis suggests that the remains belong to a nonbinary person with a rare genetic condition.
“The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary,” researchers at the University of Turku in Finland wrote in a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.
For decades, the grave dated at 1050-1300 A.D. has been used as a popular example of powerful women from early medieval societies, casting doubt over the notion that medieval Scandinavia was a purely macho environment. But the full story is perhaps even more intriguing.
For most archaeological finds, the gender of buried individuals has been determined based on grave goods and the development of osteology. However, this binary classification may be prone to error.
The Finnish researchers went through the original field documentation once more and conducted a microscopic study of animal hair and fiber remains from the soil retrieved from the grave. They also sequenced ancient DNA from the skeletal remains to unequivocally determine the sex of the buried individual by looking at the chromosomes.
Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have one X and one Y chromosome in their cells. However, the DNA from Suontaka doesn’t fall into either category.
According to the DNA tests, the person buried there had an extra X chromosome. This suggests that the person was anatomically male but had Klinefelter syndrome, a rare condition in which cells have XXY chromosomes.
People with Klinefelter, which affects about 1 in 660 males, have enlarged breasts, infertility, low testosterone, and a small penis.
“The individual could have been a respected member of a community because of their physical and psychological differences from the other members of that community; but it is also possible that the individual was accepted as a non-binary person because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons; for example, by belonging to a relatively wealthy and well-connected family,” the researchers wrote.
As a caveat, the researchers note that the DNA sample they used was small and during the sequencing, they were only able to analyze a small number of nucleotides. To fill in the gaps, the researchers performed mathematical modeling to assess chromosomal DNA. As such, the Klinefelter syndrome diagnosis may be erroneous. Perhaps the individual was truly a warrior woman. Alternatively, the Finnish archaeologists speculate the individual may have been a male shaman, whose woman’s clothing may have been deemed socially acceptable given the Norse god Odin’s association with feminine magic.
Nevertheless, this is an exciting study showing that contemporary debates surrounding gender and identity were perhaps also prevalent during the early medieval era.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.