The experts who found the skeletons at the Ptolemaic-Roman site of Quesna in Egypt cautioned that these people's above-average height and other skeletal irregularities might also reflect a congenital condition rather than castration.
Presenting at last week's American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference, archaeologists Scott Haddow (University of Bordeaux), Sonia Zakrzewski (University of Southampton), and Joanne Rowland (University of Edinburgh) highlighted the two unusual burials out of 151 total interments at Quesna, located in the Nile Delta region of the country.
One person – B21 – was an adolescent of indeterminate sex from the Ptolemaic Era. The burial was oriented rather differently: with the head to the south, rather than the typical head-north orientation of the period.
Although the skeleton was poorly preserved, Haddow and colleagues noticed that most of the person's bones looked extremely immature, including the growth plates of the limb bones, which were completely unfused. This meant that the person was taller than average, even though they were not fully grown.
The other person – B26 – was also an adolescent of indeterminate sex, dating to the Roman Era. Buried in a collective tomb, this person was similarly much taller than average with completely unfused growth plates.
Haddow and colleagues began to suspect these individuals were possibly eunuchs because castration before the onset of puberty typically results in people who are tall and slender, with broad hips, narrow shoulders, and a sunken chest.
Although there are few skeletal studies of individuals known to have been castrated, those that exist – such as of the Italian castrati Farinelli and Pacchierotti – also reveal incompletely fused long bones, tall stature, and osteoporosis.
Haddow and his colleagues said B21's burial pattern was completely different to the norm, while B26's was smilliar to others.
"Both the orientation of the grave and the artifacts included in it may 'reflect societal recognition of this individual’s conspicuous intersex status,' which could be the result of pre-pubertal castration but might also reflect a condition such as Klinefelter Syndrome or aromatase deficiency," the report said.
"Perhaps B26's condition did not result in visibly ambiguous sexual characteristics," the researchers suggest.
Haddow and colleagues concluded that "the combination of eunuchoid body habitus, unfused epiphyses and osteoporosis can occur as the result of either genetic or culturally induced endocrine disorders."
Until DNA testing is done, though, "it is difficult to establish the etiology of the skeletal features observed in the affected Quesna individuals with any degree of certainty," the report said.