Science Says Ancient Women Did Majority of Manual Labor, Were Stronger Than Modern Athletes

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We get new evidence showing that ancient women weren’t just tough and strong, but that they were absolutely badass all the time. Today, though, a new study shows that ancient women had to deal with a disproportionate amount of the manual labor — in stark contrast to the general assumption that women were demure or weak or shirked manual labor in favor of household tasks. No, no, no, no. Basically, every assumption you have about women in the ancient world is wrong. And not only that, but the study shows that these women were tougher and stronger than even elite women athletes today.

“People haven’t typically focused on females in this society, [but] it’s very important for understanding … the divisions of labor that exist today,” Hila May, an evolutionary anthropologist at Tel Aviv University who was not involved in the study, told ScienceMag. “I wish we could go back and ask people how they lived, but all we have is bone.”

The study examines a few skeletons from ancient Europe during different periods. This allows anthropologists to tell exactly what types of strain these bones were under. By studying the shape and how they differ over time, you can figure out not only how strong someone was, but also how they lived, what sorts of activities they did, etc. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s really not, at least for an anatomically modern human.

I wrote my honor’s thesis on forensic anthropology in college, and we studied bone wear in much the same way. Thing is, bone, contrary to what we often think, is living tissue. And like the rest of our bodies, it adapts to our lives. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, whoever ends up doing your autopsy will be able to tell — it’ll be obvious in your skeleton. Similarly, we can tell a runner from a weightlifter. This is partially because we know the human skeleton so well that we know what it should look like, and deviations from that are pretty easy to observe. Especially since those changes tend to follow the lines and attachment points of our muscle fibers. That’s why we can’t do this kind of analysis with nearly the same detail on dinosaur bones — we don’t have literally billions of skeletons and thousands of years of constant observation and medical study to compare to.

For humans, though, a skeleton is a treasure trove of information.

“We felt it was likely a huge oversimplification to say [prehistoric women] were simply not doing that much, or not doing as much as the men, or were largely sedentary,” Alison Macintosh, an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge told ScienceMag. To test her hypothesis, she and her research team scanned dozens of samples and then compared them to x rays of contemporary experienced runners and other elite athletes — as well as those of inactive folks — and came up with some amazing results.

Macintosh found that that prehistoric women had up to 10% more arm strength than even top-end women athletes today. Of those studied, ancient women’s bones most closely resembled those of elite rowers, with exceptional pulling strength. The study shows that women did a lot of the heavy manual labor relating to farming, including digging and hauling equipment. Men, on the other hand, likely split their time between farming and running, meaning that men tended towards lower body strength in the ancient past — the opposite of what we tend to see in modern populations.

This is particularly interesting specifically because women’s relatively weak leg bones have been a red herring for scientists for some time. It’s obvious now, but the fact that this mystery survived for so long probably has to do with the assumptions early scientists made about women. In fact, we were just looking in the wrong place.

“These results suggest that, in contrast to men, rigorous manual labor was a more important component of prehistoric women’s behavior,” the study says.

Macintosh hopes that future studies will figure out just what these women were eating and how to get a better understanding of how muscle composition has changed over time. It’s also curious to see such prodigious strength in the ancients that modern athletes can’t match. Solving that mystery could well lead to major bumps in women’s athletic performance, as well.

In any case, women kick ass and always have. If someone tells you women are naturally weak or that they don’t know how to throw down, politely refer them to the actual science and lay those myths to rest.