Ne­olithic woman was more than a match for to­day’s Boat Race rower

The Daily Telegraph - - News - By Sarah Knap­ton Sci­ence edi­tor

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

vari­a­tion to­day.”

‘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

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