Prehistoric Women Had Stronger Arms Than Modern Elite Female Rowers

An African woman using a hoe to provide food for her family. Davide Mazzoran/Shutterstock

A study has compared the bones of prehistoric females to living women for the first time, and found a surprising bone strength dating back thousands of years that may force a rethink on the roles women played.

The study, conducted by the University of Cambridge and published in Science Advances, looked at the bones of Central European women that lived up to 7,400 years ago in Neolithic times, hinting at a hidden history of women's work.

"Until now, we'd been trying to understand women's behaviour from bones in the past often by comparing them to men, which isn't ideal because men build bone in a more extreme way," Dr Alison Macintosh, the study's lead author, told IFLScience.

"Our findings show that we have clearly been underestimating women's role in early agriculture by only comparing their bones to those of men."

 

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A scan of an upper arm (humerus) bone from a North African prehistoric woman agriculturalist. University of Cambridge

Women who lived 7,400 to 7,000 years ago were found to have similar leg bone strength to modern female rowers at the University of Cambridge. Their arms, however, were 11 to 16 percent stronger for their size than the rowers, while they were 30 percent stronger than average students at the university.

During the Bronze Age 4,300 to 3,500 years ago, the difference between arm and leg strength was more pronounced. Here, the women had 9 to 13 percent stronger arm bones than the rowers, but their legs were 12 percent weaker.

The modern rowers in the study were women mostly in their early twenties, who trained twice a day and rowed about 120 kilometers (75 miles) a week. The bones of the prehistoric women were analysed with a desktop laser scanner, while the bones of modern women were studied with a CT scan.

The reason for this little-known arm strength of prehistoric women isn’t entirely clear, but the researchers suggest it may be due to the grinding of grain, a major activity in early agriculture that was likely performed by women.

Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club Openweight crew rowing during the 2017 Boat Race on the river Thames in London. Alastair Fyfe/University of Cambridge

"For millennia, grain would have been ground by hand between two large stones called a saddle quern,” Macintosh said in a statement. "The repetitive arm action of grinding these stones together for hours may have loaded women's arm bones in a similar way to the laborious back-and-forth motion of rowing."

It’s unlikely women were just grinding grain, though. They probably also fetched food and water for livestock, and manually planted, tilled, and harvested all crops.

The research suggests that women were crucial in the early development of farming, with a wide variety of work taking place that had previously been unknown.

"This hidden history of rigorous and variable women's work across thousands of years of farming was surprising and exciting for us to be able to highlight," Macintosh added to IFLScience.

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