Prehistoric women had even stronger arms than today’s elite rowing crews, reveals new research.
The study comparing the bones of women that lived during the first 6,000 years of farming with those of modern athletes shows that the average prehistoric agricultural woman had stronger upper arms than today’s female rowing champions.
Researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology say this physical prowess was likely obtained through tilling soil and harvesting crops by hand, as well as the grinding of grain for as long as five hours a day to make flour.
Until now, bioarchaeological investigations of past behaviour have interpreted women’s bones solely through direct comparison to those of men.
But male bones respond to strain in a more visibly dramatic way than female bones.
The Cambridge scientists say this has resulted in the “systematic underestimation” of the nature and scale of the physical demands borne by women in prehistory.
Study lead author Dr Alison Macintosh said: “This is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women.
“By interpreting women’s bones in a female-specific context we can start to see how intensive, variable and laborious their behaviours were, hinting at a hidden history of women’s work over thousands of years.”
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, used a small CT scanner to analyse the arm (humerus) and leg (tibia) bones of living women who engage in a range of physical activity: from runners, rowers and footballers to those with more sedentary lifestyles.
The bones strengths of modern women were compared to those of women from early Neolithic agricultural eras through to farming communities of the Middle Ages.
Dr Macintosh said: “It can be easy to forget that bone is a living tissue, one that responds to the rigours we put our bodies through.
“Physical impact and muscle activity both put strain on bone, called loading. The bone reacts by changing in shape, curvature, thickness and density over time to accommodate repeated strain.
“By analysing the bone characteristics of living people whose regular physical exertion is known, and comparing them to the characteristics of ancient bones, we can start to interpret the kinds of labour our ancestors were performing in prehistory.”
Over three weeks during trial season, Dr Macintosh scanned the limb bones of the Open- and Lightweight squads of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, who ended up winning this year’s Boat Race and breaking the course record.
The women, most in their early twenties, were training twice a day and rowing an average of 75 miles a week at the time.
The Neolithic women analysed in the study – from 7,400 to 7,000 years ago – had similar leg bone strength to modern rowers, but their arm bones were 11 to 16 per cent stronger for their size than the rowers, and almost 30 per cent stronger than typical Cambridge students.
The loading of the upper limbs was even more dominant in the study’s Bronze Age women – from 4,300 to 3,500 years ago, who had nine to 13 per cent stronger arm bones than the rowers but 12% weaker leg bones.
A possible explanation for the fierce arm strength is the grinding of grain, according to Dr Macintosh.
She said: “We can’t say specifically what behaviours were causing the bone loading we found.
“However, a major activity in early agriculture was converting grain into flour, and this was likely performed by women.
“For millennia, grain would have been ground by hand between two large stones called a saddle quern. In the few remaining societies that still use saddle querns, women grind grain for up to five hours a day.
“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.”
But Dr Macintosh suspects that women’s labour was hardly likely to have been limited to this one behaviour.
She said “Prior to the invention of the plough, subsistence farming involved manually planting, tilling and harvesting all crops.
“Women were also likely to have been fetching food and water for domestic livestock, processing milk and meat, and converting hides and wool into textiles.
“The variation in bone loading found in prehistoric women suggests that a wide range of behaviours were occurring during early agriculture.
“In fact, we believe it may be the wide variety of women’s work that in part makes it so difficult to identify signatures of any one specific behaviour from their bones.”
Senior study author Dr Jay Stock added: “Our findings suggest that for thousands of years, the rigorous manual labour of women was a crucial driver of early farming economies.
“The research demonstrates what we can learn about the human past through better understanding of human variation today.”