Rowers carrying a boat.

European women living about 1,200 to 7,000 years ago had even stronger upper bodies than modern-day rowers. Credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty

Anthropology

Ancient women had mighty builds

Prehistoric farm workers had strength superior to modern-day athletes.

Prehistoric women who ground grain and tilled soil by hand were stronger than today’s female rowing champions, according to skeletal analysis.

Scientists seeking to understand behavioural differences between ancient men and women have often turned to skeletons. But recent findings suggest that using comparisons between sexes to extrapolate from bones to behaviour is tenuous, because men’s bones respond differently from women’s to wear and tear.

That led Alison Macintosh at the University of Cambridge, UK, and her colleagues to compare ancient women with modern-day female runners, rowers and football players.

The team collected arm- and leg-bone measurements of 94 Central European women who lived between 5300 bc and ad 850. The group also imaged the bone structures of 83 modern women. Ancient bones most closely resembled those of modern rowers, but the prehistoric women had much stronger arms than the athletes, which might stem from daily agricultural labour.