Bone Study Reveals Why You Would Not Want to Arm Wrestle a Neolithic Woman

Who run the Neolithic world? Girls.


During the Neolithic Revolution, prehistoric communities made the transition from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. The role women played during this time has been difficult for researchers to figure out, largely because studies have always focused on prehistoric men. Archeologists that published a new Science Advances study on Wednesday, however, believe Neolithic women ran the agricultural show — planting crops, tilling the earth, and grinding grain into flour. This, in turn, made them really, really swole.

The team of archeologists and anthropologists report that women who lived in Central Europe approximately 7,000 years ago had stronger upper arms than living women — even today’s serious female university athletes. This study is the first to compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women, helping to remedy what the study’s authors describe as a “systematic underestimation of the nature and scale of the physical demands born by women in prehistory.” Now, gone is the image of meek, foraging women standing alongside strong male hunters. Neolithic women, who lived between 7,000 to 7,4000 years ago, got buff by spending their days working the land.

Neolithic women lived during a time when farming communities and animal domestication were introduced.

Flickr/Hans Splinter

“By interpreting women’s bones in a female-specific context we can start to see how intensive, variable, and laborious their behaviors were, hinting at a hidden history of women’s work over thousands of years,” said lead author Alison Macintosh, Ph.D., in a statement.

Macintosh and her team came to this conclusion by comparing the bones of University of Cambridge rowers, soccer players, endurance runners, and non-athlete students to bone specimens collected from women who lived in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Medieval periods. Using a CT scanner to examine living specimens of the humerus (the long bone in the arm) and tibia (the shin) bones, they determined that the Neolithic women had arms that were 11 to 16 percent stronger for their size than the rowers and were 30 percent stronger than those of an average student. To be fair to the Cambridge rowers, their leg bone strength is deemed comparable to that of Neolithic women.

Women who lived during the Bronze Age also had arm bones that were nine to 13 percent stronger than the rowers, but their leg bones were 12 percent weaker than those of the living women. Overall, all prehistoric women had stronger arms than living women, with soccer players having the weakest arm strength by comparison. This indicated to the researchers that there was a gradual decline in tibia strength among women in Europe throughout the Holocene epoch.

Food and cooking items retrieved from a European Neolithic site.

Wikimedia Commons

These observations shed some light on what sort of labor prehistoric women actually did. Those who lived during the Neolithic era existed at a time when humans were shifting from a nomadic lifestyle to a settled one, living in permanent villages complete with crops, domesticated animals, and cultural goods like pottery, and as a result manual activities changed substantially for women. The intensification of an agricultural lifestyle caused them to spend more days tending to crops and grinding grain, and in turn, the repetitive actions of this labor changed the shape, curvature, and density of their arm muscles.

“Our findings suggest that for thousands of years, the rigorous manual labor of women was a crucial driver of early farming economies,” co-author Jay Stock, Ph.D., said in a statement.

“The research demonstrates what we can learn about the human past through better understanding of human variation today.”

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