Neolithic woman was more than a match for today’s Boat Race rower
THE notion of a bucolic past where our ancestors toiled contentedly in the fields may need to be revised after a study showed just how hard prehistoric women worked.
Researchers at Cambridge University looked at bones belonging to European women who lived during the Neolithic period about 7,000 years ago.
They found they had upper arms that were much stronger than even the female Cambridge University rowing squad of today.
Experts believe such physical prowess was probably obtained through tilling the soil and spending hours a day grinding grain to make flour.
“This is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women,” said Dr Alison Macintosh, lead author of the study published today in the journal Science Advances. “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.”
Until now, prehistoric bones of women have only been compared with men of the same era, which the scientists claim has led to an underestimation of physical demands borne by women.
The team used a CAT scanner to analyse the arm and leg bones of living women and compared them with those from women of early agricultural eras through to farming communities of the Middle Ages. Bone is a living tissue and so responds to the rigours of activity just like muscle.
The Neolithic women, who lived between 7,000 and 7,400 years ago, had similar leg bone strength to modern rowers in their early twenties, who were training twice a day and rowing an average of 75 miles a week. However, their arm bones were 11 to 16 per cent stronger than the rowers, and almost 30 per cent stronger than typical Cambridge students.
“The bone reacts by changing in shape, curvature, thickness and density over time to accommodate repeated strain,” said Dr Macintosh.
“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 may have loaded women’s arm bones in a similar way to the laborious back-and-forth motion of rowing. 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.”
By the Bronze Age female bones had started to weaken, and their arms were only between nine and 13 per cent stronger than rowers, and with 12 per cent weaker leg bones.
Dr Jay Stock, senior study author and head of the project, added: “For thousands of years, the rigorous manual labour of women was a crucial driver of early farming economies. The research shows what we can learn about the human past through better understanding of human
‘For thousands of years, the rigorous manual labour of women was a crucial driver of early farming economies’ Strong role model: Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC