Research ArticleANTHROPOLOGY

Prehistoric women’s manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5500 years of farming in Central Europe

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Science Advances  29 Nov 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 11, eaao3893
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3893

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Abstract

The intensification of agriculture is often associated with declining mobility and bone strength through time, although women often exhibit less pronounced trends than men. For example, previous studies of prehistoric Central European agriculturalists (~5300 calibrated years BC to 850 AD) demonstrated a significant reduction in tibial rigidity among men, whereas women were characterized by low tibial rigidity, little temporal change, and high variability. Because of the potential for sex-specific skeletal responses to mechanical loading and a lack of modern comparative data, women’s activity in prehistory remains difficult to interpret. This study compares humeral and tibial cross-sectional rigidity, shape, and interlimb loading among prehistoric Central European women agriculturalists and living European women of known behavior (athletes and controls). Prehistoric female tibial rigidity at all time periods was highly variable, but differed little from living sedentary women on average, and was significantly lower than that of living runners and football players. However, humeral rigidity exceeded that of living athletes for the first ~5500 years of farming, with loading intensity biased heavily toward the upper limb. Interlimb strength proportions among Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age women were most similar to those of living semi-elite rowers. These results suggest that, in contrast to men, rigorous manual labor was a more important component of prehistoric women’s behavior than was terrestrial mobility through thousands of years of European agriculture, at levels far exceeding those of modern women.

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