Fri, Dec 01, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Prehistoric women’s arms stronger than elite rowers

The Guardian

Prehistoric women had stronger arms than elite female rowing teams do today, thanks to the daily grind of farming life, researchers said, shedding light on their role in early communities.

The study of ancient bones suggests that manual agricultural work had a profound effect on the bodies of women living in central Europe between about the early Neolithic and late Iron age, from about 5300BC to 100AD.

“We think a lot of what we are seeing is the bone’s response to women grinding grain, which is pretty much seated, but using your arms really repetitively many hours a day,” said Alison Macintosh, coauthor of the research from the University of Cambridge.

The study also showed that the strength of women’s arm bones dropped over time — probably as technology was developed to ease manual labor.

By medieval times, the strength of women’s arm bones was on a par with that of the average woman today.

The research builds on previous work by the team on male leg bones, which revealed a decline in strength since the late Iron Age.

“Early farming men had these really strong leg bones — when you compared them to living men they were close to what you see in living runners, suggesting they were really active,” Macintosh said. “Then [there is] this really progressive decline through time in bone strength, down to what you see in living sedentary undergraduate students at Cambridge.”

With similar trends not seen for women, Macintosh and colleagues decided to explore whether skeletal remains could offer other clues about the roles of women in early farming communities.

To do so they explored the remains of 94 women spanning about 6,000 years, from the time of the early Neolithic farmers through the 9th century, from countries including Germany, Austria, and northern Serbia.

The team also looked at scans from bones of 83 living women who fell into four groups: runners, rowers, soccer players and those who were not particularly sporty.

“Women have been doing rigorous labor over thousands of years [and] that’s really been underestimated so far because we haven’t been comparing them to living women,” Macintosh said.

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