Why is this surprising in the slightest?

The notion of a bucolic past where our ancestors toiled contentedly in the fields may need to be revised after a new study showed just how hard prehistoric women worked.

Researchers at Cambridge University looked at bones belonging to European women who lived during the Neolithic around 7,000 years ago.

They found they had upper arms that were far stronger than even than the female Cambridge University rowing squad today.

Experts believe such physical prowess was probably obtained through tilling the soil and spending hours a day grinding grain to make flour.

“This is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women,” said Dr Alison Macintosh, lead author of the study published today in the journal Science Advances.

Peasant agricultural life is one of unremitting toil. Doesn’t everyone know that?

And it is too – Malthus. Sure, there are periods when there’s a new technology, or new land, to exploit. But it pretty rapidly fills up as more children survive and then all are back to permanent labour in order to feed the kiddies. The stable situation is when the population equals the carrying capacity of the land at that technological stage. Which is also when everyone’s got to work, permanently.

There’s also an easy way to test this. Get out there to sub-Saharan Africa where the women are tilling the land. Then go measure their upper body strength.

We’ve already done the test of men of course. Those cuirasses the Household Cavalry wear. Century or two old they are and modern men rattle around inside them, need padding to stop them slipping all over the place. As opposed to the vast chest measurements of the Victorian farm boys – built up by bailing hay etc – that they were made for.

18 thoughts on “Why is this surprising in the slightest?”

  1. Yeah, the farmers (and sons) round here in Yorkshire are all pretty stocky and that’s with modern machinery doing a lot of the hard work. When I lived in Ireland in the early 80s it was the same.

    It’s sitting at desks that makes us weak physically (and in the case of most journalists, mentally).

  2. And yet they still died younger than us despite their apparent prowess.

    Where does this stuff leave Marx’s bullshit about the bucolic Golden Age prior to the rise of capitalist wickedness. ?
    Any with the brains of a gnat knew that his ramblings were coprolitic but now it is confirmed.

  3. There’s a thing about musculature. Used to find it in the construction game. We’d get young lads, back from uni in the summer. Wanting to earn a few quid. Give them a trench to dig or a skip to load. They certainly looked strong & they’d start well. Couple of hours in & they’d start to flag. By the end of the day they were knackered. The old labourer in his 50s. Skinny as a rake with a fag permanently attached to his bottom lip. He’d power through to knocking off time without breaking sweat. Sports & gym muscles. Powderpuffs.
    Get the same with a lot of the third-world girls. They don’t look any different from a lot of the English girls you see on the beach. Then they throw a fully loaded suitcase in the back of the car, one handed, without a break in the conversation.

  4. I’m a little surprised by your assertion of chest sizes (though not so much about fitness). Through my genealogical research, I’ve noticed how small first world war soldiers seemed to be, in size as well as height. And WW1 generals complained how weak and feeble the recruits were, too. But won’t they always?

  5. Bloke no Longer in Austria


    A lot of the recruits in the Great War were factory workers who had been doing monotonous work, living in slums and were generally undernourished. The Americans, Canadians and Australians ( in both wars) were races of giants compared to their British counterparts.

    Those who joined the army on a “professional” basis beforehand were usually the dregs of society. They joined up because they could not attain or keep gainful employment in the big bad world. As a result there was a huge rejection rate amongst recruits and an almost permanent manning crisis. The fact that the 1914 army was so well trained and fed meant that it could stand up to the Germans.

    The British Army set great store by feeding its soldiers well. The food may have been stodgy and monotonous, but it was high in calories and there was plenty of it. Ludendorff bewails the fact that the Germans’ morale was crushed in 1918, when they captured British trenches in the Michael and George offensives and saw how much grub there was stored there.

  6. @NN
    I’ll refer you to my comment above. There isn’t a necessary correlation between size & strength. A lot of that monotonous factory work would have been hard physical labour. Not much around in the way of mechanical handling in those days. Labour was cheaper.
    When I first started in the construction game, material came in hundredweight bags. Eight stone. Fifty kilos. Sopping wet bags of sand or ballast, more. !0 tons on a truck. 200 hundred bags. Couple of labourers would be lifting & carrying those bags three times or more, unloading them & loading them onto a job. Possibly up several flights of stairs or a ladder. Couple of hours work, then get on with something else.
    My grandfather worked on the docks & before that as a seaman. Stuff he handled weighed twice that. He could lift a hundredweight with one hand. He was about 5’3″ & not particularly hefty.

  7. Bloke in North Dorset

    “In Mud Blood and Poppycock – 4,300 calories a day in the trenches. That’s a lot really…..”

    IIRC the arctic ration pack was 6,000 calories a day and in the Falklands we were instructed to eat at least one per day and more if we wanted. We certainly didn’t go without food, every time we went near the QM they threw ration packs at us, and our role was fairly sedentary, no tabs across the island for us.

    The main reason was the cold, which I suppose give some credence to the central heating hypothesis of obesity.

  8. Those cuirasses the Household Cavalry wear.

    I doubt there would be many, if any farm hands in the Household Cavalry.

    Further back, look at the suits of armour in the Tower and elsewhere. They are small. I would have thought the average recruit today would struggle to fit inside a cuirass; I am somewhat surprised they have the opposite problem.

  9. He’d power through to knocking off time without breaking sweat

    There’s a certain amount of self-selection going on there though, if he’s been labouring for decades. Also there are lots of smaller muscles which are stressed by different activities. You could be as strong as a horse at one thing but flag during another.

    But I agree about the show ponies at the gym.

  10. Speaking as someone who has recently taken up archery… I used to have a fairly physical job although 15 years of office work have dulled my physique, however, I am built of freakish proportions and have a lot of ‘power’ strength – I can lift very heavy things but not keep doing so all day without getting knackered and I’m in reasonably good health.

    I’m using a bow of around 40lb draw weight. This is perfectly comfortable. I had a chance to draw a 100lb longbow and found this to be a struggle with no chance of making an aimed shot.

    The malnourished, dysentery ravaged bowman at Agincourt, who’d spent the last few months sleeping outdoors with no access to anything approximating modern medicine and surviving on whatever food he could scrounge, could easily handle a 150lb warbow. I have no idea how he could do this.

  11. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Something that has always bothered me when I read or see anything about longbowmen is the idea that they could loose [ not bloody fire] 6 arrows or so a minute.
    Yeah, but for how many minutes ?

  12. I can’t help thinking that we have it all wrong about the warbow. I would think that it’s more likely that the furious high rate of fire would have been used for the last few moments of the enemy’s charge rather than an arrowstorm at maximum range and when armour would have held the advantage.

  13. @ Windypants
    Longbows were the required weapon of yeomen – so the All yeomen had to train with the longbow. They had years of training to build up their musculature and the minority who could not mostly died of disease before they werrte called up to serve in the King’s army.
    These guys had the muscle development of an Oxford male rower, not a Cambridge female one, and it was “unnatural” to the extent that the archers’ left arms were compressed by the stress imposed by the yew staves as the right arm pulled the cord. They also were young and had not wasted 15 years in an office job.
    Some of my distant ancestors were yeomen (a grandfather’s cousin traced that part of the family back a thousand years) but as I was only about 120 lbs when I was young and fit I could not have drawn 150lb – I should have floated in thje air if I had tried.

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