Scientists studied the bones of nearly 100 women who lived in farming communities in Central Europe from 5300 BCE to around 850 AD and found that prehistoric women had stronger arms than modern day women. That is likely because farming women from the past had to work hard and they probably started at a very young age, according to a study published by Science Advances.
The research findings show that prehistoric women did not leave the physical labor solely to the men. In fact, they worked long hours and were a major “driving force” behind the social and cultural development of communities for nearly 6,000 years, according to lead author Alison Macintosh, an anthropologist at Cambridge University.
“Now we can kind of see, actually there are these thousands of years of rigorous manual labor that had been completely underestimated,” she told The Verge. “It’s really important to be able to understand the contribution of women.”
Scientists looked at the archaeological evidence to determine who men and women lived in the past. But, bones provide us additional information including what they ate and their levels of physical activity throughout their life. Mainly, the more you work out, the stronger bones you have.
Previous research examining prehistoric bones showed that when hunter-gatherers started farming and settled down instead of migrating, their legs got weaker and their arms got stronger. That is because people stopped moving around so much and focused on a more sedentary lifestyle, which included working on crops and taking care of livestock. These changes were more significant in men than women, Macintosh tells The Verge. She explains this is due to men’s bones responding differently to physical activity than women. As a result, it’s incorrect to compare the lifestyle of women versus men by only looking at their bones. That’s why Macintosh and her team decided to put prehistoric female bones side to side with modern female bones.
“They just look much weaker than men, so we think they’re not doing anything when that’s really not the case,” Macintosh says. “You need an appropriate comparison to see that.” Consequently, Macintosh and her team compared bones from back then to modern day women. She scanned the upper arm bones and shinbones of 94 women from the Neolithic to Middle Ages, as well as the bones of 83 living women in Cambridge who either lived a sedentary lifestyle or played sports such as soccer, running or rowing. The researchers found that the prehistoric women had consistently stronger arms. For example, the Neolithic women living around 7,000 years ago had 11 to 16 percent stronger arm bones than modern day rowers. That suggests while modern-day athletes who mainly use their arms were not as strong as women from 7,000 years ago.
However, some prehistoric women had weaker legs than today’s women, while others had legs as strong as runners. “It suggests that women were doing a huge range of things,” Macintosh says. She argues that each group of women may have had different lifestyles and responsibilities.
There is a significant limitation in the study, however. For example, the researchers did not take into account genetic factors, which can influence whether a person has stronger bones than another. That said, Macintosh points out her research points towards the advancement in looking at how women lived their lives 7,000 years ago.
“This kind of work just highlights the role of women in the development of life as we know now,” Macintosh says. “We all pretty much live in agricultural societies now. And these couldn’t have developed without all of this manual labor done by women over thousands of years.”