Prehistoric women were stronger than modern rowers

Prehistoric Women

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Bronze Age women from around 4,000 years ago had arms bones that were 9 to 13 percent stronger than the rowers. The study in the journal Science Advances is the first to compare the bones of women who lived 7,000 years ago in Central Europe to women of today - specifically championship rowers and British college students.

But so far, most of these skeletal studies only assessed men's bones and looked for signs of load-bearing activities. Bronze Age women were disproportionately strong, they say, indicating that their behaviours were dominated by intense and repetitive manual labour. Women in the study's earliest agricultural time period, the Early Neolithic period, had arm bones that were approximate 30 percent stronger than those of living recreationally-active women, and around 16 percent stronger than those of living rowers.

A new study led by Cambridge University's Alison Macintosh adds more fuel to girl power fire by revealing prehistoric women living during the first 6,000 years of farming possessed physical prowess that would put competitive athletes to shame.

The results were published November 29 in the journal Science Advances.

The present shapes our study of the past, so archaeologists have typically made prehistory a tale of strong men hunting and farming the fields, while relatively weak women hang around the house doing less physically taxing labor. The leg bones, on the other hand, do not show consistency as some have weaker legs than modern women whereas some have stronger than runners. They found that prehistoric women's upper arm bones nearly uniformly contained more changes associated with load-bearing activities.

Macintosh and her team scanned the shinbones and the upper arm bones of 94 women who lived from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages and also bones of 83 living women in Cambridge. "I wish we could go back and ask people how they lived, but all we have is bone". Men's bones respond to strain in a more visibly dramatic way than female bones, which is why it was important to conduct a female-to-female comparison for this study. By medieval times, the strength of women's arm bones was on a par with that of the average woman today.

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Scientists have found that prehistoric women had stronger arms compared to women, including semi-elite female rowers.

As the researchers explained in the study, the task of converting grain into flour was a primary activity in early agriculture, and was likely done by women.

- Prehistoric women had stronger arms than elite female rowing teams do today thanks to the daily grind of farming life, researchers have revealed, shedding light on their role in early communities, The Guardian reports.

Previous bioarchaelogical investigations of prehistoric behavior have only compared women's bones to men's, leading to a systematic underestimation of the nature and scale of physical demands borne by women, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

For women, this likely meant processing grains and other materials in the domestic sphere, "for which there is ample archaeological evidence", Knüsel said.

The study also found that there was considerable variation in the arm and leg strength of women in the past, which, Macintosh said, could be a reflection of "a huge range of different behaviors" and types of work that women engaged in. Another unanswered question, says Macintosh: precisely how ancient men and women split up the chores.

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