A life of hard farm work apparently gave ancient women stronger arm bones than modern women, even today’s elite rowers.
That’s the finding of British researchers who compared the bones of a wide range of present-day women with the bones of women who lived in Central Europe during the first 6,000 years of agriculture.
Women from 7,400 to 7,000 years ago had similar leg bone strength as modern-day women who are high-level rowers. But their arm bones were 11 to 16 percent stronger for their size and nearly 30 percent stronger than typical female university students, the study found.
Women from 4,300 to 3,500 years ago had 9 to 13 percent stronger arm bones than modern elite rowers, but 12 percent weaker leg bones.
The strong arm bones in ancient women who farmed were likely due to activities such as tilling soil and harvesting crops by hand, as well as grinding grain for hours a day to make flour, according to the researchers from the University of Cambridge.
“This is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women,” said study lead author Alison Macintosh, of the archaeology department.
“By interpreting women’s bones in a female-specific context, we can start to see how intensive, variable and laborious their behaviors were, hinting at a hidden history of women’s work over thousands of years,” Macintosh explained in a university news release.
“It can be easy to forget that bone is a living tissue, one that responds to the rigors we put our bodies through,” she said. “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 study was published recently in the journal Science Advances.