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Pumping Iron Age! Ancient women had much stronger arms than today’s female sports stars

Women in Europe’s ancient civilizations had stronger arms than elite female sports stars do today thanks to the grind of farming life, scientists say. The research shows women were a driving force behind the socio-cultural development of agrarian communities.

A study of bones belonging to women who lived in central Europe between 5300 BC to around 100 AD reveals manual agricultural work had a profound effect on their bodies. Their strong arms reveal women engaged in hard work like harvesting, tilling the soil and grinding grain using their hands.

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“We think a lot of what we are seeing is the bone’s response to women grinding grain, which is pretty much seated but using your arms really repetitively many hours a day,” Dr Alison Macintosh, co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian.

The research scanned the shinbones and upper arm bones of 94 women who lived from the time of the early Neolithic farmers around 5300 BC to the 9th century from countries including Germany, Austria and northern Serbia. In addition, scientists looked at scans from bones of 83 living women who fell into four groups: runners, rowers, footballers and those with a sedentary lifestyle.

The results, published in the journal Science Advances, reveal that while the arm bones of women from the Neolithic to the late Iron Age showed variations in strength, they were stronger than those of rowers, football players, and non-athletic women.

It found that Neolithic women who lived about 7,000 years ago had arms stronger by 11 to 16 percent compared to modern rowers. As for women who lived in the Bronze Age, from about 4,000 years back, their arms were found to have been stronger by 9 to 13 percent in comparison with present-day rowers.

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© Jan Frolik

“We really saw them standing out through that first 5,500 years of farming, just really consistently stronger arm bones than the majority of the living women, including the rowers,” Macintosh said. “Medieval women had much weaker arm bones than those previous prehistoric women; they looked a lot more like modern, recreationally active women.”

The study also reveals that the strength of women’s arm bones dropped over time, probably as technology was developed to ease manual labor. By medieval times, the strength of women’s arm bones was on a par with that of the average woman today.

The findings reveal much about the role of women in society. Women used to work long hours and were a significant “driving force” between the socio-cultural development of agrarian communities for over 6,000 years, it says.

“Women have been doing rigorous labor over thousands of years [and] that’s really been underestimated so far because we haven’t been comparing them to living women,” Macintosh said. “It’s highlighting those hours of work that women have been doing that have been hidden in the archaeological record until now.”

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