When it comes to upper-body strength, Serena Williams has nothing on prehistoric lady farmers

If ladies of yore could play sport, they might even beat Serena.
If ladies of yore could play sport, they might even beat Serena.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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The present shapes our study of the past, so archaeologists have typically made prehistory a tale of strong men hunting and farming the fields, while relatively weak women hang around the house doing less physically taxing labor. Except: Old bones tell a different story.

Bio-archaeologists at Cambridge University in the UK did what no one thought to do before. Instead of comparing old female bones to old male bones, they tested the strength of prehistoric women living in Central Europe as far back as 7,400 years ago—against female athletes today. The results, published in the journal Science Advances on Nov. 29, reveal that ladies of yore were even stronger than, for example, the elite female rowers on today’s Cambridge University rowing team.

Bone is a living tissue that changes based on activity, so bio-archaeologist Alison Macintosh and her team knew they could test the physical impact and strain on old bones—called loading—to get a sense of what women did and how much force they exerted. While men’s and women’s prehistoric bone-loading have been compared before, the effect of loading is more visible in men’s bones, so comparing the genders doesn’t tell us much. Macintosh figured that comparing the archaeological material to living women’s bones would provide more meaningful data, which could reveal the relative strength of ladies back in the day.

The research team tested 300 living women, including runners, rowers, soccer players, and less athletic members of the Cambridge student population, comparing their upper- and lower-body bones’ loading with the archaeological materials. Prehistoric women’s bone loads show that they were nearly 30% stronger than postmodern women not involved in athletics. The Neolithic women (between 7,400 and 7,000 years ago) analyzed in the study had similar leg-bone strength to rowers now, but their arm bones were 11%-16% stronger for their size compared with the athletes. Meanwhile, Bronze Age women (between 4,300 and 3,500 years ago), had 9%-13% stronger arm bones than the rowers, but 12% weaker leg bones.

The researchers believe this exceptional arm strength came from tilling and planting fields manually, plus grinding grain for hours a day. “We can’t say specifically what behaviours were causing the bone loading we found,” Macintosh says. “However, a major activity in early agriculture was converting grain into flour, and this was likely performed by women.”

Subsistence farming involved—indeed, still involves—manually planting, tilling, and harvesting all crops. Macintosh posits that women were probably also fetching food and water for domestic livestock, processing milk and meat, and converting hides and wool into textiles. ”The variation in bone loading found in prehistoric women suggests that a wide range of behaviors were occurring during early agriculture,” she says. In fact, the wide variety of women’s labor may be why it’s so difficult to identify signatures of any one specific behavior from their bones, according to the study.

Too bad those old bones can’t be matched in a race against the Cambridge Boat Club or a modern athletic titan, like tennis champion Serena Williams. Though the prehistoric women were surely not involved in sports, it seems they could easily trounce the best of us.