Decoding Homosexuality in the Archaeological record: Earliest Same-Sex Love

In October of 2013, Jim Parsons (actor) and Todd Spiewak (graphic designer) revealed their love for each other. Speaking on the GLESN Red Carpet, Jim had this to say:

“If we’re inspiring at all, it’s that we’re a very-average-normal-just-moving-along-with-our-lives kind of people”

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 Parsons made the announcement in a low-key statement, which attracted little of the gutter journalists, thankfully. This got me thinking about the perception of the announcement of homosexual relationships. Saying that we are tolerant in the 21st century is a ridiculous simplification. For one thing different cultures have different tolerance levels to such announcements. Islam is one such culture that is for the most part, out-right intolerant of homosexuality.

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Sleep (1866) – Jean Désiré Gustave Corbett

It has long been known that homosexuality in animals such as humans has been an ever present orientation. Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Volker Sommer (UCL) published Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective (2006) which examines the extent to which homosexuality operates in not just humans, but other animals also. While there may be a shortage of research into the evolutionary history of homosexuality, shortage of evidence for homosexuality in modern day nature, there is none. Deer, birds such as geese, flamingos, bison, dolphins, cats and virtually all primates, including humans. All this does not answer the question, though. How were homosexual partners perceived in the past? Easy……….when you are discussing modern day perceptions, hard (no pun intended)……..when you are talking about a gay Paranthropus boisei……………………….

Burial is not particularly useful until Homo neanderthalensis arrives on the scene, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even then, there is considerable debate as to whether our extinct cousins deliberately buried their dead. The majority of palaeoanthropologists will agree that the evidence supports the hypothesis that Homo neanderthalensis buried their dead. Cave art may help in some ways, but this has inherent problems. Art is a form of communication and could be read differently by different groups or individuals. Using science to determine the meaning of art is not very fruitful. Number one the researcher has her/his own set of cultural backgrounds and biases, which have potential to influence conclusions. Number two art was never meant to be scientifically analysed with regard to the meaning. Art welcomes varying interpretations. We can tell the age of the art a number of different ways. One method employed in the prehistoric rock-art sites of the Côa Valley, northern Portugal, involves stratigraphy. Soil found lying against the rock was laid after the art was (in this case) etched into the rock.

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We can determine the composition of the pigments used, such as those used in Lascaux (France) and Ekain (Spain). The research at these two sites, simply begs for your curiosity. The pigments applied to the walls of these caves included that minerals, groutite, hausmannite, and manganite, all oxides of manganese, not found anywhere near these sites. Chalmin et al,. (2006) found that the closest source could have been 250 km south in the central Pyrénées. What does this mean? One intriguing possibility is, of course, trade links. Palaeolithic and trade links were not two words archaeologists would put in the same sentence, but evidence points to our inability to give our ancestors more credit as early Homo sapiens.

Ekain Cave (Spain)

Look Up! Just look at the Ekain Cave art! What does it mean? We will just never know, but it is fun to play with hypotheses. But I digress……….we are trying to find evidence of homosexual activites in prehistory. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

Male Couple Engaged in Intercourse, possibly 14,000 B.C., found in the Cave of Enlène, Ariège, Pyrenees, France

Here we have a homosexual couple (yeah, this is what I mean by interpretation) making love, etched on stone, found in the Cavern d’Enlene, southern France. This site dates to about 14,500 uncal BP and was first excavated in 1869 by Felix Regnault and much later by Jean Clottes. What about the two Venus’ having hot fun below. The cave of Gönnersdorf, Germany, first excavated in 1968 by Gerhard Bosinski. This site revealed numerous statues of venus figurines and relief work.

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Honestly, we could look at alot of prehistoric art and with each one never entirely agree as to what they are depicting. Check out the “Sex on Rocks” (“Sexo en piedra”) on display in the Santillana del Mar Museum, Cantabria, Spain for more dildo action. Let’s return to the early question of this blog. How was homosexuality perceived in prehistoric times? Little research has been done to give a worthy answer. I would like to think that it was acceptable in alot of cultures around the world over the last 200,000 years. When history begins (i.e. the first use of the written word), the Greeks are accepted by all scientists as the true drivers of homosexual freedom, albeit in a male chauvinistic society. By the time the Romans came on the scene, Greece had long seen the last of its glory days, but Emperor Hadrian look with fondness at the history of Ancient Greece, especially when it came to sexuality. It is well documented that Hadrian (Below Left) was fond of young handsome men. Indeed he suffered depression at the loss of his lover, Antinous (Below Right).

Can we go back any further than the Greeks for expression of homosexual love? Maybe………….in 2011 the media was all a buzz with the discovery of the first gay cave cavemen (emmm….too much baggage there) buried together. But this turn out to be woefully distorted information from online media. One paper even goes as far as contradicting themselves. The title included gay cavemen and the end of the article included “third gender”. The is a difference, ya know! Dating to 2500 to 2800 B.C., the male burial contained all but those grave goods you would associate with a woman or man. The Corded Ware culture tended to certain burial formats when it came to woman and men. If it is not male or female than what is it? The idea of a third gender has been around for a long time and that is what the archaeological team suggested. Just to be clear, the burial contained a male, but the culture in which it lived considered him as someone different a third gender. So what about our gay Paranthropus boisei……..well we can always dream of female on female interactions, but one thing is for certain science is not ready to help here. Alot of focus has been given to the art humans produced over the past 40,000 or so thousand years, some to the sexual representation, offer, thus far the best chance to see how sexuality was tolerated or not. For me, like today, there may have been much complexity, some cultures accepted homosexuality, others shunned it. The earliest certified references to homosexuality can be found in the artefacts of Bronze Age Greece. In a male chauvinistic society, where female on female interactions don’t appear to have been as prominent. Cultural perception of sexuality appears to have gone through a wobble on the sexual see-saw, with more forms of sexuality such as transgender, third gender etc making appearances from time to time.

Artistic representations of sexuality in prehistory may have been used as part of rituals and rights of passage, but few represent two women or two men attracted to one another for love. There is no doubt in my mind that two females of Homo erectus had love for one another, though science can’t prove such an hypothesis, such a scenario is not beyond possibility. Now, many hundreds of thousands of years after Homo erectus made its first steps out of Africa, we see homosexuality embraced, in the Western World, at least, as a legitimate and tolerable love between two same-sex humans.


Check out homosexual rituals in various human culture here.