Stone Age women were tough mothers


New analysis reveals impressive arm strength in early field workers. Andrew Masterson reports.


An elite female rowing team. Neolithic women could have easily beaten them – but they were too busy grinding grain.
An elite female rowing team. Neolithic women could have easily beaten them – but they were too busy grinding grain.
Adam Hunger / NCAA Photos / NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Recognising and removing a gender bias that has long been present in anthropology has resulted in a surprising insight into the lives of Neolithic women.

A trio of researchers from the universities of Cambridge, UK; Vienna, Austria; and London, Canada, has discovered that the women who worked the land of Central Europe some 7000 years ago were super-strong.

Studying the shape and fine structure of female Neolithic limb bones and then comparing them, using CT scans, to those of modern elite female athletes, the scientists discovered that the former had much more powerful arms than the latter.

In fact, the Neolithic women had a calculated arm strength between 11 and 16% greater than that of the Cambridge University female rowing team members – dedicated sportspeople who, at the time of the tests, trained twice a day and rowed 120 kilometres each week.

"It can be easy to forget that bone is a living tissue, one that responds to the rigours we put our bodies through,” says lead researcher Alison Macintosh.

“Physical impact and muscle activity both put strain on bone, called loading. The bone reacts by changing in shape, curvature, thickness and density over time to accommodate repeated strain.”

The extraordinary upper body strength of Neolithic women hasn’t been acknowledged before because previous bio-archaeological research estimated the labour demands on women simply by comparing their bone structures to those of men.

This led to a bias, and underestimation, because male and female bones respond differently to stress and strain.

In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, Macintosh and her colleagues suggest that the muscle strength of the 7000-year-old women was a result of long hard days spent in fields, and the equally long hard hours spent processing the results of their labours.

"For millennia, grain would have been ground by hand between two large stones called a saddle quern,” she says.

“In the few remaining societies that still use saddle querns, women grind grain for up to five hours a day.

“The repetitive arm action of grinding these stones together for hours may have loaded women's arm bones in a similar way to the laborious back-and-forth motion of rowing.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
  1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aao3893
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