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Remains of so-called ‘Ivory Man’ in ornate Spanish tomb turn out to be female

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As It Happens6:39Remains of so-called ‘Ivory Man’ in ornate Spanish tomb turn out to be female

About 5,000 years ago in Spain, there was a woman who was so important to her people that when she died, they filled her tomb with incredible riches and honoured her memory for generations to come, archeologists say.

She’s now known as “The Ivory Lady” due to the lavish ivory contents of her tomb. But when her remains were first unearthed 15 years ago, archaeologists incorrectly classified them as “likely male.”

Now — thanks to an analysis of her teeth — they know she was, in fact, female. And her ornate burial is challenging assumptions about the kinds of roles women may have played during that era of human history. 

“For the period we call the Copper Age, which basically spans from 3200 to 2300 BC … there is no other tomb that compares to this one. Not by a long stretch,” Leonardo García Sanjuán, an archaeologist at the University of Seville in Spain, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

García Sanjuán is the co-author of the study that re-classified the figure once known as “The Ivory Man.” The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

When the tomb was first excavated in 2008 near Seville, Spain, the skeletal remains inside were too badly fragmented to determine the sex. But since then, scientists have developed a method that examines old teeth for a protein that contains a sex-specific peptide.

“There is a lot to be learned from these methods, and we suspect it’s going to be used enormously in future investigations,” García Sanjuán said.

‘A great leader’

Alison Beach, a historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who was not involved in the study, says the findings challenge long-held historical narratives.

“[It shows] it’s not exclusively true that men have always been the most revered or held the most authority,” Beach told The Associated Press.

A decorated ivory tusk was among the many ornate items discovered in the Copper Age tomb. (Miguel Ángel Blanco de la Rubia/ATLAS/University of Seville)

García Sanjuán says archeologists found a large collection of ivory artifacts in the tomb, including a dagger, a finely crafted vessel and comb, and full tusk from Africa that was “placed carefully around her head, as for protecting her from the entrance of the tomb.”

There was also a ceramic plate, he says, which contained traces of wine and cannabis.

“To the best of our knowledge, this would be the … earliest instance of cannabis use in European history,” García Sanjuán said. “It’s a very special substance, of course, and the presence of this cannabis has implications in terms of what this lady was and her social persona.”

A hole dug in the ground, shaped like a magnifying glass, with various archaeological items inside.
When archaeologists first discovered the tomb, they assumed it was for a man. But now they’ve determined the remains are female. (ATLAS/University of Seville)

But she wasn’t just important to those who first buried her, he said. 

“Between three or four generations after she died, other people who built a major monument next to her grave … actually deposited another collection, another assemblage of high-quality, high-end, very special items on top of her grave,” he said. The items included a second dagger made from a rock crystal blade with an ivory hilt.

“So her fame was living through the generations, and later generations remembered her and paid tribute to her, which I think it’s quite revealing of her social standing as a leader, as a memorable person, as a great leader,” García Sanjuán said.

There could be others

Researchers know little about the social or political structure of the society that she belonged to — which was roughly contemporaneous with the rise of the pharaohs in Egypt’s Nile River Valley and with the construction of the first planned city on the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia.

“The political complexity of pre-state societies is usually associated with concepts such as ‘big man’ or ‘chiefdoms,’ which explain the emergence of early forms of leadership,” study co-author Miriam Luciañez-Triviño, a researcher in the  University of Seville’s Department of Prehistory and Archaeology, told Reuters.

“In the ethnographic literature, these leaders are most often males. However, our study provides data that may help to  revise interpretations of [Iberian] peninsular and European prehistory, showing that we still know little about the role of  women in positions of power during this period.” 

Two crystal daggers with ivory hilts, pieced together from broken pieces, displayed on a bright red background. The hilts are shaped almost like human teeth.
A rock crystal dagger with an ivory hilt and sheath were among the artefacts added to the tom between 50 and 100 years after the Ivory Lady died. (ATLAS/University of Seville)

Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, a co-author and archaeologist at the University of Vienna in Austria, suspects the same misidentification might be true at other ancient tombs where researchers assumed, “Oh, this is a rich and prominent person, it must be a male.”

“If we go back and test, we will get a few more surprises,” Rebay-Salisbury said.

Sex vs. gender

In 2017, researchers used a DNA analysis to determine that a viking warrior, who had previously been assumed male, was actually female. 

In that case, some archeologists suggested the remains — which were buried in traditionally male clothes — may have belonged to a transgender or gender non-conforming individual.   

Some researchers say that in re-classifying the Ivory Man as the Ivory Lady, we could still be making biased assumptions about the past. 

University of Durham bioarchaeologist Rebecca Gowland — who helped the method of determining sex by testing tooth enamel — cautioned against making pronouncements about gender based on findings about sex. 

“It could be that they had some special status that was more significant than their gender identity or … there was not a binary gender system,” she told CNN.


With files from The Associated Press and Reuters. Interview with Leonardo García Sanjuán produced by Katie Geleff.

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