Comparisons of bone strength between prehistoric women and living female athletes demonstrate that prehistoric women performed rigorous manual labor for thousands of years in central Europe at levels exceeding those of modern women. Additionally, in contrast to men, manual labor was a more important component of prehistoric women's behavior than terrestrial mobility through the first 5,500 years of European farming, suggesting women's labor was crucial to the development of agriculture. Past studies of the rigidity of male shinbones (tibia bones) during the same period demonstrate how male terrestrial mobility likely increased over time. Meanwhile, women's activity in prehistory has been difficult to interpret, due in part to a wide variability in their bone changes, potential for sex-specific skeletal responses and a lack of modern comparative data. To address these issues, Alison Macintosh and colleagues investigated trends in female upper and lower limb bones and inter-limb strength. They compared the bones of prehistoric women spanning the first ~6,150 years of agriculture in central Europe to living female semi-elite athletes - endurance runners, rowers and soccer players - and sedentary women. Inter-limb strength proportions between the humerus and tibia were used to characterize the relative importance of manual labor (indicated by more force on the arms) versus terrestrial mobility (indicated by more force on the legs) among agricultural women. Results showed much higher levels of loading on the arm bones than leg bones among prehistoric women, more so than among all living women, including semi-elite rowers. On the other hand, prehistoric female tibial rigidity differed little on average from modern sedentary women. The study also highlights the importance of using female comparative data to interpret female behavior in the past, as it more accurately depicts behavior than comparisons using male data.
"Prehistoric women's manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5500 years of farming in Central Europe," by A.A. Macintosh; J.T. Stock at University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK; R. Pinhasi at University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria; J.T. Stock at Western University in London, ON, Canada.