At a time when Indiana ‘Indy’ Jones is back in our midst and ‘archaeology’ is buzzing in our heads, a new scientific technique to determine the sex of a long-deceased and skeletonised individual has been tried out with success.

To tell whether a 5,000-year-old skeleton is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ is almost impossible unless you can get hold of some genetic material, which is not always available. Therefore, “archaeologists have for decades struggled with sex estimation of poorly preserved human remains,” say the authors of a Spanish research whose work recently revealed that the ‘Ivory man’, a powerful individual buried in a lavish tomb 5,000 years ago, was actually a woman.

The ancient individual was apparently of a high social order and was buried with a number of sumptuary items produced with exotic items like ivory, rock crystal and amber, and a large ceramic plate that had traces of wine and cannabis.

To make the sex determination, scientists Marta Cintas-Peña, et al, of the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology, University of Seville, Spain, looked into the tooth enamel of the ‘Ivory man’. Through the analysis of sexually dimorphic amelogenin peptides in the enamel, they have established that the most socially prominent person of the Iberian Copper Age (c. 3200–2200 BC) was a female, not male as previously thought.

The technique uses proteomics and can provide highly reliable sex determinations even for poorly preserved human skeletons, the researchers say.