Strong-armed women helped power Europe’s ancient farming revolution

Bone studies show that a low-tech agricultural life sculpted powerful arms that female rowers today would envy

female rowers

FARM ARMS  Central European women who lived in early farming villages generally had stronger arms than women today, including these University of Cambridge semi-elite rowers, researchers say.

Alastair Fyfe/Univ. of Cambridge

Ancient farm women in Central Europe labored so vigorously at grinding grain, tilling soil and other daily tasks that the women’s average upper-arm strength surpassed that of top female rowers today, a new study finds.

In the early stages of farming more than 7,000 years ago, women engaged in a wide array of physically intense activities that were crucial to village life but have gone largely unnoticed by scientists, conclude biological anthropologist Alison Macintosh of the University of Cambridge and colleagues.

“Women’s labor provided the driving force behind the expansion of agricultural economies in the past,” Macintosh says.

Previous investigations underestimated the intensity of ancient farm women’s manual labor, the researchers contend online November 29 in Science Advances. Those studies compared women’s bones with those of male contemporaries and men today. But due to hormonal and other biological factors, male bones generally undergo faster and more beneficial shape changes in response to regular physical exertion than female bones do. To better gauge how women’s skeletal strength has changed over time, Macintosh’s team compared bones of ancient farm women with those of living women, including different types of athletes.

Using CT scans, the researchers examined cross sections of upper-arm and lower-leg bones of 83 women aged 19 to 43. The group included 17 rowers, 11 football (soccer) players and 18 endurance runners recruited from University of Cambridge sports teams and clubs, as well as 37 women who did not participate in organized sports. The athletes had trained and competed, some at international meets, for at least four years.

Arm and leg bone measurements were also obtained from previously excavated skeletons of women who lived in Central European farming villages between around 7,300 and 1,200 years ago. Numbers of ancient women sampled ranged from 76 to 90, depending on which limb bone was examined.

Stronger bones were thicker, with more bone concentrated at key stress points. 

Up to around 2,000 years ago, farm women displayed much greater arm strength relative to leg strength, the scientists say. A similar pattern of arm strength characterizes accomplished female rowers today.

Women from the earliest farming sites, dating to between about 7,300 and 7,000 years ago, had leg bones about as strong as those of modern rowers but arm bones between 11 and 16 percent stronger for their size than rowers. Women from about 4,200- to 3,500-year-old farming villages showed a comparable arm strength advantage over rowers but had slightly weaker leg bones than the modern athletes. Ancient farm women’s right arms were particularly strong. It’s unknown whether the skeletons were right- or left-handed, but presumably most favored their right hand, as do most people today.

It’s not surprising that grain grinding and other agricultural tasks endowed ancient women with especially strong arms, says bioarchaeologist Vitale Sparacello of the University of Bordeaux in France. “But until this new study, we did not have an estimate of how much you would have to work out today to get even close to the arm strength of early farm women.” That estimate consists of at least four or five hours of daily, intense upper-body exercise, as practiced by the rowers.

Farming’s introduction in Central Europe mainly enhanced women’s right-arm strength, says paleoanthropologist Vladimír Sládek of Charles University in Prague. Next year, he and his colleagues will publish analyses of Central Europeans’ skeletons that span the past 30,000 years. Women’s right-arm strength rose sharply in early agricultural communities, mainly due to hours of daily grain grinding using handheld stones on large stone slabs, Sládek says. Declines in women’s right-arm strength started around 1,500 years ago with the invention of grain grinders operated with rotating handles, he adds.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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