Person genetically a male but physically a female lived in London nearly 2,000 years ago
Scientists say that in a few births per thousand there are males born with female chromosomes and females born with a male chromosome. One such case came to light recently in London in the skeleton of a woman from the Roman era of about 2,000 years ago. Researchers analyzed her DNA and found she was genetically a male but physically a female. It is the oldest case known to science.
The woman’s skeleton was exhumed in 1979 and is thought to date to around 50 to 70 BC, when London was founded by Rome as Londinium. Researchers from the Museum of London and other institutions analyzed the DNA of four of the 20,000 skeletons across 5,500 years that the museum holds in storage and intend to analyze more to get a clearer picture of the ethnic makeup of the city.
A model of Londinium during the Roman era (SouthEastern Star / Flickr)
The sample was small—just four individuals—but the researchers concluded that London was just as diverse ethnically in the Roman era as it is now, when only 45 percent of its people are white and more than 100 languages are spoken in various neighborhoods.
The woman in question died when she was 26 to 35 years old. Analysis of the chemical content of her teeth shows she was probably born in Britain, though her maternal ancestors may have been from northern Europe, according to mitochondrial DNA. Her teeth had signs of periodontal disease, a degenerative gum disease. She had brown eyes and dark brown hair.
She was interred in a wooden coffin. She had a necklace at her feet, indicating a possible female orientation. She also had a flagon at her head and a bronze mirror at her feet. All these artifacts suggest she was an important woman who was of high status.
“The Harper Road Woman’s skeleton is morphologically female. The scores of the observable osteological [bone] pelvic and cranial traits used to determine sex all scored female,” wrote Museum of London spokesperson in e-mail. However, the woman had both an X and Y chromosome, distinguishing her as genetically male. Ms Jackson said researchers don’t know if she had male or female genitalia.
“There isn’t enough evidence on how this would affect her behaviour to provide an answer,” the spokesperson wrote to Ancient Origins.
There is a condition known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in which the individual affected is physically female but has male chromosomes. However, there is not enough information about the condition of the ancient woman to know if this was the cause of her unique characteristics or not.
The Roman woman was morphologically female but genetically male, with both an X and Y chromosome.
A 2010 story in the Guardian says “Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as ‘two-spirit’ people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as ‘berdache’ by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word ‘bardaj,’ meaning an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a clear homosexual connotation.”
But perhaps more to the point of the Roman woman found in London, there was a legend among ancient Greeks that early on people were of both sexes and later became separated into the two distinct genders. The Romans borrowed heavily from Greek culture. Though we can’t know how this woman behaved or even what she looked like, from her grave goods it is fair to say she was accepted and perhaps even admired by her community.
Featured image: The remains of the woman with male DNA contained grave goods that make researchers think she had high status in her community. (Photo by Museum of London)