Prehistoric Women Were Stronger Than Some of Today’s Elite Female Athletes
Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club

Farming is hard work, and prehistoric women in Central Europe—who tilled and harvested fields, ground grain, and hauled crops without help from modern equipment—likely had the muscles to prove it. New research looking at the bone strength of European women living through the first 6,000 years of farming suggests they had quite the work ethic.

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study compared the arm and leg bones of modern female athletes to those of female farmers from Central Europe during four different eras—the Neolithic Era, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and the Medieval period. The results reveal that ladies of yesteryear were even stronger than the elite female rowers on today’s Cambridge University rowing team.

These rowers are mostly in their early twenties and have been training for seven years. Each week they practice for 21 hours and row an average of 120 kilometers. The female farmers’ arms were almost 30 percent stronger than typical Cambridge rowers, said the report.

“This is the first paper that compares the bones of prehistoric women to those of living women, and it has allowed us to identify a hidden history of consistent and rigorous manual labor among women across thousands of years of farming,” says study coauthor Alison Macintosh of the University of Cambridge.

“We often think about men as the ‘providers,’ but this paper really highlights women’s extensive contribution to provisioning,” says Marshall University’s Habiba Chirchir, who was not part of the study team.

The team compared the shape and strength of both the humerus in the upper arm and the tibia in the lower leg among dozens of these ancient and modern women. They found that prehistoric women’s upper arm bones almost uniformly contained more changes associated with load-bearing activities. Bronze Age women were disproportionately strong, they say, indicating that their behaviors were dominated by intense and repetitive manual labor.