Early Bronze Age communities in Central Europe buried male and female bodies differently. Bodies are placed either on the left or right body side in the grave, with the head towards the north or south, and gender-typical grave good may accompany the dead. Archaeologists compare the gendered treatment of the dead to the sex of the buried person, to make inferences about how gender was constructed in the past.
Whereas the skeletal morphology of adult men and women differs sufficiently for an osteological sex estimation, this is not the case for children before puberty. Boys and girls cannot be reliably differentiated based on skeletal features, and genetic sex determination is limited by preservation. The recent discovery that amelogenin protein fragments in human dental enamel are sex-specific and can be analyzed almost non-destructively using nanoflow liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (nanoLC-MS/MS) has the potential to transform the (bio-)archaeology of gender and childhood.
This project will establish the identification of sex-specific peptides in human enamel as a standard analytical procedure and utilize data on the sex of buried children to answer a number of urgent questions on sex-specific mortality, morbidity and burial treatment in children.
We will establish sex-specific growth curves and thereby improve osteological age at death assessment for the populations of the Bronze Age. We will be able to know if girls and boys were treated equally as babies and during childhood, or if infanticide, malnourishment, trauma and disease disproportionally affected either sex. We will understand from which age societies responded to the sex of babies and small children through cultural practices, e.g. by dressing them differently or burying them according to male or female custom. We can learn about value systems linked to gender, their development during childhood and adolescence and about power relationships between the sexes.
Furthermore, the project will pave the way to developing new applications of analyzing the human proteome to study the history of disease and life-style adaptations in the past.