A new research released by Cambridge University compares the bone strength of prehistoric females to those of living women. The study, released today, states that women from early agricultural eras had stronger arms than the rowers of Cambridge University’s famously competitive boat club. It also adds that the findings point to a hidden history of physically demanding manual labour by women. Their work included manual planting, tilling and harvesting, among others. Scientists believe that the repetitive arm action of grinding 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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The researchers were trying to learn about how ancient societies behaved and therefore investigated the bone structure of women. However, this was always done by directly comparing them with men. Scientists believe that they may have been underestimating the kinds of strain women were putting themselves under because stress is more visible in male bones than females. Dr Alison Macintosh, lead author of the new study published today, states that this is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women. She added that by interpreting women’s bones in a female-specific context, they 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. 

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The study was carried out by using the CT scans of leg and arm bones from women in the early Neolithic agricultural era (around 7,000 years ago), through to the farming communities of the Middle Ages (from 1,500 to around 500 years ago). The researchers then compared these scans with the elite, record-breaking female rowing team from Cambridge University. The results of the study revealed that the strength of the leg bones was similar to that of the elite rowers. However, the ancient arm bones were actually 11 to 16 percent stronger for their size than the rowers, and almost 30 percent stronger than a typical Cambridge student. Further, the study found that Bronze Age women from around 4,000 years ago had arms bones that were 9 to 13 percent stronger than the rowers.

Watch Dr. Alison Macintosh discuss the research:

Macintosh states that the reason behind this could be as simple as an activity of converting grain into flour. She says, “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.” Further, activities like manual planting, tilling and harvesting were probably part of the workload of women in the olden days, as also things like fetching food and water for livestock, processing milk and turning hides and wool into textiles. In an article published in New Atlas, Macintosh adds that analysing the bone characteristics of living people whose regular physical exertion is known, and comparing them to the characteristics of ancient bones, will help in interpreting the kinds of labour our ancestors were performing in prehistory