Prehistoric women were stronger than today’s competitive rowers

Women living during the first 5,500 years of farming in Central Europe developed some serious upper body strength.

Planting crops without plows and grinding grain by hand is hard work, and was likely routine for women living in early European agricultural societies. To get a sense of just how strong those women were, researchers at Cambridge University compared prehistoric bones to those of women living today, including endurance runners and members of the university’s elite women's rowing team. We spoke with lead author Alison Macintosh about the study.

ResearchGate: Whose bones did you compare exactly?

Alison Macintosh: The prehistoric skeletal remains come from Central Europe, specifically Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and northern Serbia. We compared the prehistoric women to living women participating in endurance running, soccer, and rowing, as well to a group of recreationally-active women who are not competitive athletes.

RG: How did you make this comparison?

Macintosh: We compared bone strength in the upper arms and the lower leg among prehistoric and living women. With the prehistoric skeletons, we scanned the bones using a 3D laser scanner, and then took slices through these virtual models to get cross-sections of the bones. From the living women, we used CT imaging to get images through the bones. We can then quantify bone strength using special software.

RG: What did you find?

Macintosh: We found that women living during the first 5,500 years of farming in Central Europe had stronger arm bones than most living women, even stronger than the rowers. 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.

We also found that prehistoric women's leg bone strength was really variable, and encompassed almost the entire range of values that we saw in the living women, including relatively sedentary women through to ultramarathon runners. This suggests that prehistoric agricultural women were doing a huge range of daily activities that involved varying amounts of strain on their legs, but were consistently doing higher levels of manual labor than living rowers.

Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club Openweight crew rowing during the 2017 Boat Race on the river Thames in London. The Cambridge women’s crew beat Oxford in the race. The members of this crew were among those analysed in the study. Credit: Alastair Fyfe for the University of Cambridge

RG: Why do you think prehistoric women had so much upper body strength?

Macintosh: Though it's hard to say exactly what these women were doing, these communities were farming prior to mechanization, which would have involved tilling the soil, planting crops, harvesting crops, and grinding the grain to make flour, all by hand. Before the plow was invented, they would have been using tools like digging sticks and flint sickles inserted into wooden handles to till the soil and harvest the grain. Throughout the time periods in the study, they were using stone querns to grind the grain into flour by hand. Women also were likely involved in looking after domestic livestock, milking them, processing milk, meat, hides, and wool into textiles, and making pottery and manufacturing other items.

RG: Why look specifically at women?

Macintosh: It's fairly common in studies examining bone strength to see differences between men and women, with men often having stronger bones or more pronounced changes through time than women. This was the case in my previous studies of Central European farming populations. Early farming men initially had quite strong leg bones and their bone strength declined progressively through time as they became more sedentary. This didn't happen in the women; they had consistently lower bone strength than men, and it didn't change through time.

Why this might be the case was difficult to interpret. Were women more sedentary than men throughout agricultural intensification? Were they mostly doing manual tasks rather than activities that involved the legs? Or was this simply a reflection of biological differences in how men and women build bone? We know that men build more bone and stronger bone in response to activity than women do, even if they're doing the same types of activities. Without comparative data from living women, it's very difficult to interpret what we're seeing in the bones of prehistoric women, and these data from living women had never been collected.

Early Neolithic (3700 - 3500 BC) saddle quern. Credit: Claire H.

RG: Is there a particular point in time when women became less active, and therefore less strong?

Macintosh: In the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, grain was processed using a saddle quern, which is a time-consuming and relatively inefficient way to grind grain. In the Late Iron Age, a new grain grinding technology, the rotary quern, became common in Central Europe. This technology is more efficient, takes less time, and uses less muscle activity to grind the same amount of grain as a saddle quern. This may be one of the main reasons why women's upper limb bone strength starts to decline between the Iron Age and the Medieval period in this region of Europe.

RG: What do your results add to our understanding of the lives of prehistoric women?

Macintosh: Our findings highlight the scale of women's labor in prehistoric agricultural communities; we can start to appreciate the hidden history of women's work across thousands of years of farming, which was likely more rigorous and intensive than most living rowers. Our work also highlights the huge variability in the daily activities of women, particularly in terms of how much strain they were putting on their legs, giving us a wider appreciation of the scale and variability of things that women were likely doing in their daily lives.


Featured image:  A 3D model created using a scan of an upper arm (humerus) bone from a prehistoric woman agriculturalist. This bone is from a North African population, and did not feature in the study itself, but is an example of the type of bone and research methodology used in the study.