Prehistoric women had extremely strong arms of a life of manual labor



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An examination of a bone in the upper arm of a prehistoric farmer woman. This bone is from a population of North Africa, which was not part of the study, but is an example of the research method. (University of Cambridge)

Modern humans have historically thin bones. Our skeletons reflect a deviation from hunting and gathering. (McDonald's speeding in search of novel chicken nugget sauce does not count.) Anthropologists looking back in time have discovered that, in contrast to our well-rested skeletons, the prehistoric bones of the legs and arms were thicker. The human bones, once built with effort, began to shrink after the change to agriculture.

However, most of the research that matches past behavior with bones has focused on the male members. "There has been little work done yet, and what has been focused on men mainly because the relationship between behavior and bone is a little less complex in men than in women," said Alison Macintosh, who studies skeletal biomechanics at the University of Cambridge. anthropology department. The bones of women have a double function: not only do they need to be strong, he said, but they also store the minerals that are used during pregnancy and lactation.

Macintosh is the author, along with other Cambridge researchers and the University of Vienna, of a new report that highlights women workers from 5,500 years ago to the present. The study, published in Science Advances on Wednesday, matched the scans of ancient female bones with those of modern humans. Until the medieval period, women performed manual jobs that produced thick bones of the arm.

"We have greatly underestimated the scale of this work," Macintosh said.

Anthropologists did laser scans of old bones, arms and shins of prehistoric women. All the women lived in Central Europe and were part of agricultural societies, but they represented different times: the Neolithic, the Bronze, the Iron or the Middle Ages. Then, the researchers asked live women to undergo computed tomography, including semi-professional athletes (soccer players, rowers and runners) and not athletes.

Cross sections of the tibia showed that modern runners and soccer players had the most stress on their legs. The bones of the shin of an average modern woman were like those of prehistoric women.

Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age women, however, had pronounced effects of tension on the bones of the upper arm, the humerus. Even members of the female crew teams could not compare.

"The extent to which the daily activities of prehistoric women exercised the bones of their arms was quite similar, or even more, than the amount of effort these rowers are putting on their arm bones," Macintosh said.

The scientist said it was difficult to determine exactly what caused the strong arms. Instead, he listed a wide range of agricultural tasks: "Before the plow was invented, they would have been using digging sticks, flint sickles inserted into wooden handles, etc., to till the soil and harvest the grain, and stone mills to grind grain into flour by hand Women were also involved in caring for domestic livestock, milking, processing milk, meat, skins and wool in textiles, and making pottery and making other items. "

By the time he arrived In the Medieval Period, Macintosh said, technology may have made the grinding grain less strenuous. A device called a rotary mill, a type of hand mill, became common in Central Europe at the end of the Iron Age. It was faster and easier to use than other stone grinding tools. The new culinary invention "may be one of the main reasons why the bone strength of the upper extremities begins to decline between the Iron Age and the medieval period in this region of Europe," Macintosh said.

Behavior is not the only factor that strengthens bones. Genes and nutrition also play a role. But the study's author said that "the influence of mechanical loading on the skeleton probably explains most of the differences."

Macintosh said the team is working to get more information about a person's life from bones, such as their muscular and fat structures. The researchers also plan to continue their research on the strength of the arm bone, in prehistoric men, in a somewhat unusual inversion of the usual scientific order of things.

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