Prehistoric women had extremely strong arms from a life of manual labor…

By Ben Guarino  on The Washington Post:

A scan of an upper arm bone from a prehistoric woman agriculturalist. This bone is from a North African population, which was not part of the study, but is an example of the research method. (University of Cambridge)

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.

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3 thoughts on “Prehistoric women had extremely strong arms from a life of manual labor…

  1. Jumped through & read the article – fascinating stuff. There’s been similar archaeological work in NZ where it’s been shown how heavy muscle-development left its mark on the bones (usually asymmetrically) – everyday life was hard labour for men and women alike. Oddly enough, in earlier days I used to think that prehistoric women were constantly being rescued from the clutches of Pterosaurs’ claws by time-travellers from the future, while Thog the Cave Man threw polystyrene boulders at them, but maybe that was just the kind of movies I used to watch on TV re-runs…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You watched 1,000,000 B.C. too many times, Matthew 😄
      I suspect that if they did a little research of women worldwide, they’d find similar results in various parts of the world even today,especially in agricultural areas, where women, as well as men, work the fields, land or paddy fields AND carry humongous loads on their heads or backs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the one! It always fascinated me how Hammer studios’ Cave Women always looked like Raquel Welch, whereas Cave Men were brutish, hairy characters who went ‘ugh’ and solved all their problems with wooden clubs… I agree on the likelihood that agriculture anywhere in the world likely drew in the whole labour force – managing fields is absurdly labour-intensive without machinery, and there’s some evidence emerging now that the hunter-gatherer societies it replaced were materially less labour-intensive (especially for men – the women did the bulk of the actual food-gathering).

        Liked by 1 person


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