Superstrong Prehistoric Women Were Responsible for the Biggest Shift in Early Human Civilization

London's Oxford women's crew after losing the Cancer Research U.K. Boat Race on April 2. Ian Walton/Getty Images

Updated | Prehistoric women were so strong that they may just have turned the tide of ancient civilization. New research comparing the arm strength of average Central European women from the first 6,000 years of the agricultural era to that of elite rowers today found that the prehistoric women were stronger. The finding changes our understanding of early human life.

All previous bioarchaeological studies of female bones assessed their strength only compared to male bones, despite the fact that they didn't respond to strain in the same way. Researchers from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology conducted the first study comparing the bones of prehistoric women to those of living women. A paper describing the research was published in the journal Science Advances. What they found showed just how powerful prehistoric women were—and that they likely played a far more significant role in early agriculture than previously suspected.

Lead author Alison Macintosh, an anthropologist at Cambridge, said we've "clearly" done prehistoric women a disservice by comparing them only to men until this point. Because women's bones look weaker by comparison, they weren't getting enough credit for the role they played in early agriculture.

Macintosh decided to correct that. To better understand the strength of prehistoric women, she and her colleagues focused on members of the Cambridge University Women's Boat Club, who train twice a day and row upward of 70 miles a week. Two of the squads not only won this year's Boat Race but also broke the course record in the process.

The researchers spent three weeks during the teams' trial season scanning arm and leg bones from members of the open and lightweight squads, most of whom are in their early twenties. According to the findings, the arm bones of Neolithic women were around 11 to 16 percent stronger than the bones of the rowers. Compared to an average Cambridge student who was not an elite athlete, the prehistoric women were nearly 30 percent stronger.

"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," the authors wrote.

"With these data from living women now, we can start to appreciate the scale of women's work, the intensity of manual labor and the huge variability in lower-limb loading, encompassing virtually the entire range of bone strength we see in the living women, from controls through to ultramarathon runners," Macintosh told Newsweek. "This highlights a hidden history of women's work across thousands of years that was rigorous and intensive relative to living women, perhaps more so than we typically assumed."

"We suspected that women were likely doing a lot of manual activities in these agricultural communities, but the living women really helped put the extent of this labor into context, and that extent was surprising!" Macintosh said by email. "Prehistoric women really stood out from the living women for their upper-limb bone strength, whereas there was quite a bit of overlap between prehistoric women and living women in their leg bone strength. We were surprised by the scale of women's work that these results hint at, where previously we had been largely underestimating this."

The researchers believed prehistoric women gained their arm strength through a combination of tilling soil, harvesting crops and grinding grain into flour for up to five hours a day.

Macintosh and her colleagues hope to learn more about the range of behaviors typical to prehistoric women, and at what age they began building their strength. The leg bones in particular showed a lot of variation in strength; some prehistoric women had weaker legs than average modern women, while the legs of others were stronger than those of most endurance runners.

This story has been updated with the link to the published study and additional insights from the researchers.