So this is the first study that
actually compares bone strength and prehistoric women to those of actually
living women. We have some data from living men but nobody’s ever scanned any
women to to provide a comparative data set and this matters because men and
women don’t build bone in the same way to loading. A lot of people forget that
the skeleton is actually alive it’s a tissue that responds to loading it
responds to what you’re doing in your life and it will change accordingly
so if you for example are a runner I mean you’re exerting a lot of loading on
your legs your bones will respond by they’re adding more bone or moving bone
around so that it’s strong enough for that particular sort of activity that
you’re doing. When we look at athletes or living people where we actually know
what they’re doing we can start to link characteristics in
their bones to what they’re actually doing in their life so that when you
just have a skeleton from someone who lived thousands of years ago we can
start to look for similarities in the shape and strength of the bone with a
living person and then work our way backwards to interpret how that
prehistoric person might have been loading their bone. I recruited from the
Cambridge University women’s boat club because I wanted a sport that loads the
arms I had a lot of runners and soccer players but they’re not really doing
anything with their arms. The good thing about rowing is it’s not really high
impact like a sport like tennis would be on the arms but it is really repetitive
and really labour-intensive there there’s a huge amount of muscle force to row.
Their training volume was twice as high as the other sports I had. So what we
found was really really strong arm bones in prehistoric women compared to all of
the living women even the rowers. Well we think the main activity that they would
have been doing that is contributing to these really strong arms is processing
grain this is when you’d have been farming by hand essentially so there’s
no plough yet therefore they’re planting by hand
they’re making grain by hand, this would have involved hours of manual labour this
was done by hand with what’s called a saddle Kern it involves kind of grinding
the grain against a stone with another stone that’s really really repetitive
and labour-intensive. In modern traditional farming societies this is
usually women that do this and it can account for up to five hours a day of
manual labour for them. I think a lot of the time we underestimate women’s
loading, women’s behaviors because women’s bones don’t respond to loading
in as extreme away as men’s do, so often trends in men look really exciting and
women are more difficult to interpret what we’re seeing because women do so
many different things in their daily life so what was really great was being
able to to highlight the thousands of years of really intense manual labour
that women were doing. And it’s that manual labour that really provided the
driving force allowing for the development and expansion of production
economies once we start farming. We wouldn’t have this sort of expansion
that we saw without those sort of unseen hours of women’s work.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. I'm wondering where the ''ancient bones'' are thought to be from (which region and culture)? Why are Cambridge University middle to upper class (on average) female boat rowers the best subjects to test against ancient ''gruelling'' labor class of women? University life is full of the most entitled and privileged people on Earth. Rowing clubs are traditionally quite upper class and elitist, as is Cambridge University as well as rowing not being a professional sport and more a pastime, hobby or leisure activity. At best these women are training 2 or 3 times on arms a week, as well as actually rowing time. Ancient women didn't have an abundance of resources to rely on and I would imagine worked all day every day and used daylight hours as efficiently as possible.

    Why not compare women who still do gruelling and intense manual labor jobs today from poor or even working class societies!? That would be the obvious comparison surely!?

    Comparing ancient working class women to the modern age elitist class who leisure/hobby train for a non professional sport, in my mind quite redundant. Without boohooing the study the vague and one dimensional aspect with glaring apples to oranges comparison seems a little naive.

  2. I was wondering why rowers were chosen for this experiment. Seeing as a lot of rowing power really comes from the legs and core, wouldn't another sport have provided a better comparison?

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