The buff women of prehistory got shit done.
A new study out of the University of Cambridge found that women’s blood, sweat, muscles, and manual labor were crucial to the development of agriculture.
The researchers compared bones of prehistoric women from agricultural communities with modern-day elite athletes, such as rowers, as well as sedentary modern women. They found that the prehistoric females—those spanning the first 6,000 years of agriculture in central Europe—had arm bones that carried higher loads than all modern women’s.
The oldest bones they studied date back to 5300 BCE, 7,400 years ago, while the most recent are from the Medieval period in 850 AD, about 2,800 years ago.
Lead researcher Alison Macintosh, a post-doctoral research fellow at Cambridge, told me in an email that it’s common for studies of bone structures in human evolution to see differences between men and women, with men often having stronger bones than women or more pronounced changes in their bones over the eras than women. What’s more difficult to suss out is whether this is due to differences in activities between the sexes or biological differences.
“This means that, if we see weaker bones among women in the past than men, we might infer that they weren't doing as much physical work as men, and really underestimate their labour, when really we are just seeing biological differences,” Macintosh said. “This is why we need living women to compare prehistoric women to!”
From the study: This 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. Image: Cambridge University
They chose rowers for the study because the Cambridge female rowing team trains twice a day for several hours, doing low-impact but repetitive movements that employ the upper and lower body. These movements and muscle loads are similar to what prehistoric women in agricultural communities might have been doing all day around the farm, Macintosh said.
Researchers don’t know what, exactly, the women were doing to build such strong bones, Macintosh told me. But since these communities were farming before mechanization, we can assume that people were likely tilling soil, planting and harvesting crops, and grinding grain to make flour—all by hand.
In addition to farming tasks, women were caring for livestock (milking them, processing milk, meat, hides, and wool into textiles, and carrying feed around) and making pottery and textiles.
All of these activities are incredibly labor-intensive, and women likely spent most of their days doing hard manual labor. From this study, it’s tempting to conclude that they were massively ripped, but it’s too soon to guess whether these findings change how we imagine prehistoric women to look.
“Bones and muscle have a close relationship, as muscles attach to the bones and exert strain on them when we move,” Macintosh said. “However, we are still in the early stages of our understanding of just how bone structure can predict muscle size or muscle strength, so we can't say much about the muscularity of these prehistoric women yet.”
But if you want to imagine your ancient ancestral matriarchs as rippling, muscled goddesses who gifted us with agricultural advancements using their brawny arms, no one can stop you.