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Sex, gender, and identity represented through anthropomorphic figurines of the Neolithic.

Carl T. Feagans, Program in Anthropology, The University of Texas at Arlington Karl Petruso, Advisor
Anthropomorphic figurines of fired clay and stone have long captured the attention and imagination of those investigating our prehistoric ancestors. One of the most persistent observations made by antiquarians and archaeologists studying figurines of the late Stone Age (ca. 9000-3000 BCE) of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe has been that they are overwhelmingly female. This observation has become controversial in the last several decades as a result of the mother goddess movement of popular culture: some writers appealed to the ancients in order to justify their beliefs. The present study explores the topic of sex within a corpus of 403 figurines of the Neolithic period in Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Data were collected from figurines published in the academic archaeological literature, in museum catalogs and on websites, compiled in a relational database, then analyzed using both SPSS and GNU PSPP statistical software packages. The results show that while female figurines do in fact greatly outnumber their male counterparts, nearly as many figurines are of indeterminate sex. Clearly there is a component of sexual identity associated with figurines that are obviously male or female, but less clear is the reason why their makers would avoid delineating sex. It is argued that this raises new questions bearing upon how we ascribe identity in the Neolithic.

Materials and methods

Ultimately 403 figurine specimens were cataloged with respect to a number of features, including dimensions, material, facial features, hand and leg positions, genitalia, posture, etc. Reports generated from the database itself could then be imported into SPSS and GNU PSPP for statistical analyses. Probable Sex


That female figurines far outnumber their male counterparts in the Neolithic is not unknown to previous researchers. It is also variously recognized that the number of sexless figurines rivals those identified as female. Until now, however, previous studies have focused on more narrowly defined geographic locations, largely limited to individual cultures. The current study presents a broader examination of the Neolithic, comparing and contrasting regions within Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe, confirming some existing assumptions while raising new questions. Why, it might be asked, do many representations of prehistoric people appear to have been intentionally gender neutral, without defined sexual characteristics? Modern observers of figurines are often eager to categorize and classify them based on modern, mostly Western, concepts of sex, which presents a binary condition of being male or female, though recent authors have cautioned against making such assumptions since it can have the effect of predetermining the conclusions (Joyce 2002). Still, many modern writers have considered only the predominance of female imagery among Neolithic figurines (Lesure 2002), all but ignoring the nearly equal proportion of sexless figurines of the same periods and among the same cultures. Joyce notes that there is a tendency to lump figurines in the female category in the absence of obvious male characteristics (2002: 603), but when figurines are evaluated without this dichotomizing assumption, a third group of figurines emerges that is clearly neither male nor female. Several possibilities could readily explain the striking number of sexless figurines attributed to the Neolithic: gender could be defined by the end user through clothing, headgear, jewelry, or other adornments to the figurine itself; gender might be schematized in ways that are too subtle for the modern, Western mind to recognize; or gender may indeed be a fluid concept in prehistory that defies modern Western understanding.

Overall, figurines were 47% female, 7% male, and 45% sex-unknown The Neolithic saw slightly fewer male figurines (6%) in Southeastern Europe than were present in Southwest Asia (9%), but the number of sex-unknown figurines was the same in both regions (45%) Clay and terracotta were favored by makers of female figurines, but materials that required carving (bone, stone) were more likely to be sex-unknown in both regions. Male and sex-unknown figurines were more likely to have been depicted standing. Females were slightly more likely to be seated. Standing figurines turn out to be rare in the Neolithic of Southwest Asia.



Probably Female Probably Male Androgynous Unknown Duo


Materials by Probable Sex in SW Asia

Unspecified Stone (unspecified) Clay (unspecified firing) Mineral (specified) Ivory Bone Alabaster Limestone Marble Clay (fired) Terracotta 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40


Probably Female Probably Male Sex Unknown Duo -1 Male 1 female


Number of Figurines


Materials by Probable Sex in SE Europe

Unspecified Stone (unspecified) Mineral (specified) Bone

The late Stone Age (Neolithic) of Europe and Southwest Asia marks a period in which many transformations occur in human culture: agriculture begins to flourish, permanent settlements and communities are established, eventually eclipsing pastoral or nomadic lifeways, and ceramic technology is introduced. Like their ancestors of the Early and Middle Stone Ages, Neolithic people still relied on stone tools. Another characteristic of the Neolithic are small, portable, three-dimensional representations of people and animals. While animal figurines are possibly as common as those of people in the archaeological record, it is the latter that more easily capture our attention, perhaps because they are ostensibly self-representations of the very people archaeologists study. Not surprisingly, questions related to sex, gender and identity arise, and the responses have often been affected by modern cultural assumptions.

Figure 2.Graph of the distribution of probable sex within figurines of the Neolithic in Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe.


Tuff Alabaster Limestone Marble Clay (unspecified)

Probably Female Sex Unknown Probably Male Androgynous Duo -1 male 1 female

A variable of probable sex was used in which a figurine could be characterized by simple visual inspection as probably female, probably male, androgynous, duo/twin (one of each sex), or unknown/indeterminate. Figurines were placed in the unknown category if no clear indication of sex was present. Frequency distributions were calculated to determine the number of cases in each variable, and cross tabulations were run using probable sex against other variables.

Terracotta 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100

Number of Figurines

Figure 4. Graphs of the distribution of probable materials by probable sex.

Literature cited
Posture in SE Europe
Lying Supine Kneeling Probably Female Probably Male Sex Unknown Androgynous Duo/Twin

Joyce, R. (2002). Critique of Lesure, R. G., The Goddess Diffracted. Current Anthropology, 43(4), 602-603. Lesure, R. G. (2002). The Goddess Diffracted: Thinking About the Figurines of Early Villages. Current Anthropology, 43(4), 587-610.




Probable Sex Among Figurines in SE Europe

Probable Sex Among Figurines in SW Asia

Seated 0 10 20 30 40 50 60

Number of Figurines




Probably Female Probably Male Androgynous Sex Unknown Duo -1 male 1 female




Figure 5. Graph of posture within probable sex in Southeastern Europe. Males and sex-unknown are more likely to stand. Females are slightly more likely to be seated.
Posture in SW Asia

I thank Karl Petruso for both his mentoring and his questions. I would also like to thank Joci Ryan for her insights and encouragement. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank my wife for tolerating a few late nights at the compute





Lying Supine Probably Female Probably Male Sex Unknown Androgynous Duo/Twin

Figure 3. Graphs of the distribution of probable sex within figurines of the Neolithic in Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe, broken down by region.




For further information

Please contact More information on this and related projects can be obtained at my page: This poster can be found in PDF form at:

Seated 0 5 10 15 20 25 30

Number of Figurines

Figure 1. Map of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Red icons indicate Neolithic sites were figurines of the study originated.

Figure 6. Graph of posture within probable sex in Southwest Asia. Standing figurines turn out to be rare in the Neolithic of Southwest Asia.