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Prehistoric Women Had Stronger Arms Than Competitive Rowers Today

From TIME - November 29, 2017

Todays athletes may be strong, but theyve got nothing on prehistoric women who spent their days harvesting crops and grinding grain. According to a new study in the journal Science Advances, the average woman who lived during the first 6,000 years of farming had stronger upper arms than modern-day female rowing champions.

The study highlights the scale of womens labor in prehistoric agricultural communities, and the hidden history of womens work across thousands of years of farming, says study author Alison Macintosh, a postdoctoral anthropology researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

Previous research has compared womens bones to mens of the same era, the authors write in their study. But male bones respond to strain in a more visibly dramatic way than female bones, they explain, which has caused scientists to underestimate the true nature and scale of the physical work done by women in prehistoric societies.

In this study, researchers used a CT scanner to analyze the arm and leg bones of living women, and compared them to those of Central European women who lived between 7,400 and 3,500 years agoa time period that included early Neolithic agricultural eras into the Middle Ages. The living women were selected to represent a range of physical activity levels and included runners, rowers, soccer players and people with more sedentary lifestyles.

The researchers found that the early Neolithic skeletons (women who lived between 7,400 and 7,000 years ago) had leg bones of similar strength to todays female athletes. But even when compared with women on Cambridges championship rowing team, the prehistoric womens arms were 11-16% stronger for their size. They were also 30% stronger than the arms of the non-athletes analyzed in the study.

Women from the Bronze Age (4,300 to 3,500 years ago) had 9-13% stronger arm bones than todays rowers, but they also had 12% weaker leg bones.

The researchers suspect that the early womens superior arm strength came from the daily work they likely put in tilling soil, harvesting crops by hand and grinding grain to make flour. For millennia, grain would have been ground by hand between two large stones called a saddle quern, says Macintosh. In the few remaining societies that still use saddle querns, women grind grain for up to five hours a day.

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