Prehistoric Women Had Stronger Arms Than Today’s Best Rowers

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-06 20:11

A bone analysis of the 7,000-year-old remains of prehistoric women shed a new light on the role of women in prehistoric communities, as well as the effects of hard agricultural labor on the body.

Both men and women in prehistoric society shouldered physically demanding tasks.



Usually, we think of men to be the main providers, especially in the olden days. They’re the ones that went out hunting for food, or went off to battle, or, in these more modern times, went off to work. Women stayed behind and tended to the children and other domestic matters.


Or, at least, that’s what many of us thought of how things were like in the past.


A new study has found that prehistoric women did a lot of manual labor in prehistoric societies. Looking after the homestead--caring for animals and tending the crops--may be a lot more physically demanding than we may have thought, so much so that the work left its mark on the women’s very bones.

To the Bone

The bone scan of the upper arm bone of a prehistoric agricultural woman. [Image by the University of Cambridge]



Previous studies have compared the bones of prehistoric women to prehistoric men, but there was a need for a new approach. “This is the first paper that compares the bones of prehistoric women to those of living women, and it has allowed us to identify a hidden history of consistent and rigorous manual labor among women across thousands of years of farming,” says Alison Macintosh, one of the researchers.


Because the humans of prehistoric times didn’t really keep written records, we have to rely on other things to get an idea of what life was like then. We analyze fossils, remains, ancient archaeological sites, and material culture. However, it turns out that the bones of prehistoric humans also have a lot to tell us.


Macintosh says that our bones are made of living tissues, and they respond to the physical strains and pressures we go through. Bones react to physical impact and muscle activity by “changing in shape, curvature, thickness and density over time to accommodate repeated strain."


The researchers recruited athletes--rowers, football players, and runners--from Cambridge, as well as volunteers that aren’t as physically active. Their bones were scanned with a CT scanner so the researchers can compare the bones of prehistoric women to those of modern female athletes.

Prehistoric vs Modern

Demanding day-to-day tasks left their mark on the bones of prehistoric women.



Analysis of the prehistoric bones showed that they bore signs of intense physical labor, and that prehistoric women were undoubtedly quite strong. The evidence of strain on their upper arms showed that these women bore heavy loads and performed heavy physical labor on a regular basis. The evidence of strength in their legs, however, were less consistent and varied from individual to individual.


Comparisons between the arm strength of prehistoric women and that of living female rowers showed that the prehistoric women had nine to 13 percent more arm strength. Though we can’t yet be sure which activities exactly gave these women such arm strength, they were likely to be repetitive hours-long activities like grinding grain, tilling soil, planting and harvesting, weaving, and preparing meat. This was before the invention of tools that would make these tasks easier, so the work that these women shouldered was certainly rigorous.

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