By Ben Guarino on The Washington Post:
Modern humans have historically skinny bones. Our skeletons reflect a departure from the labors of hunting and gathering. (Speeding to McDonald’s in search of novelty chicken nugget sauce doesn’t count.) Anthropologists looking backward in time have found that, in contrast with our well-rested skeletons, prehistoric leg and arm bones were thicker. Human bones, once built up with exertion, began to shrink after the shift to agriculture.
Yet the bulk of research pairing past behavior to bones has focused on male limbs. “There has been little work done yet, and what does exist has focused on men largely because the relationship between behavior and bone is a bit less complex in men than in women,” said Alison Macintosh, who studies skeletal biomechanics at the University of Cambridge’s anthropology department. Women’s bones work double duty: They not only need to be strong, she pointed out, but the bones also store minerals that are used during pregnancy and lactation.
Macintosh is the author, along with other researchers at Cambridge and the University of Vienna, of a new report that shines a spotlight on women workers from 5,500 years ago through today. The study, published in Science Advances on Wednesday, paired the scans of ancient female bones with those of modern humans. Until the medieval period, women were performing manual labor that produced thick arm bones.
“We’ve largely been underestimating the scale of this work,” Macintosh said.