Should hominins unrelated to us be addressed as he/she or it?


Since both Neanderthals and Denisovan were able to interbreed with modern humans, making them fellow hominids, why is there such a discrepancy in how he address them. If we’re dealing with a male or female specimen, why not refer to those specimens as he or she?
I look forward to your feedback.

We don’t know what the Denisovan looked like. We don’t know how it lived, what tools it used, how tall it was, what it ate, or if it buried its dead.

But from only two teeth and a piece of finger bone smaller than a penny, we’ve been able to extract the rich history of a species that split off from Homo sapiens approximately 600,000 years ago. We know they’re more closely related to Neanderthals than humans—though still distantly. We know they made their way to Southeast Asian islands, interbreeding with indigenous modern human groups in New Guinea and Australia. We know their interspecies mingling with modern humans in mainland Asia was brief, but enough to impart a few genes. And we know Denisovan genes reveal evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and an even more archaic hominin species.

That author doesn’t use “he” or “she” because he’s not referring to an individual, but to the entire species. When speaking of H. sapiens sapiens, we would generally use “we” in that context, but though the Denisovans are close relatives of ours, we are not Denisovans, so we can’t use that. What other pronoun would you suggest?

I don’t see why not. Plenty of people refer to their pets as “he” or “she”.

Let’s move this to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

I mean to write fellow hominins.
The question simply interested me how an anthropologist dealing with specimens on a daily basis might refer to them. Knowing that they were capable of making fire, making weapons, burying their dead, art and construction (the latter two in terms of Neanderthal)

Actually, the author is referring to an individual-- the specific Denisovan who left the fossil finger bone behind. If he had been referring to the whole species he would have said “Denisovans”, not “Denisovan”. We can’t tell the gender of the individual, but if it had been an H. sapiens fossil, the author probably would have said “he or she” instead of “it”.

There are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone (as opposed to something) without identifying whether that person is male or female. It’s normal to use ‘they’ now instead of the clunky he/she.

Thanks John Mace. Thank you all.

I usually agree with this, but if you are talking about an individual, there may be confusion as to whether you are making a general pronouncement about “their” species as a whole, or just “them” individually. Perhaps you could say “this individual”, alternating with “he or she”, and then slip in “they” if you have to refer to them multiple times in a sentence since it is clear who you are referring to.

I use “he” or “she” to refer to animals of known sex and “it” to refer to animals of unknown sex. I’d use the same for people or people-like species. Note that “gender” does not refer to biological sex but instead refers to cultural ideas about roles/behaviors exhibited by individuals of a particular sex. If we can’t identify the sex of a fossil, it’s pretty sure we can’t identify its gender either.

“He” or “she” would open the scientist to accusations of insufficient scholarly distance and anthropomorphism (ridiculous under the circumstances, but–let’s be honest–not unlikely to arise) or gender bias. “He or she” still has the former problem and is awkward to boot. “It” might cause some people like the OP to look askance, but is unlikely to provoke direct criticism. It’s the safest choice.