Prehistoric Women Were Stronger Than Some of Today's Elite Female Athletes


Farming is hard work, and prehistoric women in Central Europe—who tilled and harvested fields, ground grain, and hauled crops without help from modern equipment—likely had the muscles to prove it, according to a new study spotted by Discover.

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study compared the arm and leg bones of modern female athletes to those of female farmers from Central Europe during four different eras spanning 5500 years—the Neolithic Era, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and the Medieval period. Using laser scans and molds, Cambridge archaeologist Alison Macintosh and a team of scientists were able to examine the bones' shapes and rigidity, as these factors indicate how much muscle they once had around them. They measured these observations against CT scans of female Cambridge University rowers, endurance runners, and soccer players, as well as those of non-athletes.

Not only were the Neolithic women's leg bones comparable in strength to those of the rowers, the arm bones were 11 to 16 percent stronger. (When sedentary students were factored into the mix, this difference in strength was as high as 30 percent.) Strength also ranged among prehistoric women, suggesting that women specialized in specific forms of manual labor.

These findings contradict the theory that prehistoric women performed domestic work instead of manual labor. Around 10,000 years ago, humans began shifting from hunting and gathering to farming. This didn't just change their eating habits—it also changed their bones, as skeletons stretch and twist in response to stresses. Because men were running less, their shinbones became straighter and less stiff. But women's shinbones remained largely the same over the time periods, prompting some scholars to conclude that they performed less strength-intensive tasks. The paper's authors say that theory underestimates women's activity in prehistoric societies.

Plus, Discover points out, studies of prehistoric behavior often compare female skeletons with male ones—an unfair comparison, considering that men's bodies respond differently to strain.

"We felt it was likely a huge oversimplification to say [prehistoric women] were simply not doing that much, or not doing as much as the men, or were largely sedentary," Macintosh told Science.

[h/t Discover]

Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Cemeteries Unearthed at Construction Sites
Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images
Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images

The people who lived before us are often just beneath our feet, even if their tombs are sometimes forgotten. Lost under urban development, they are rediscovered when a subway, building, or other structure claims the ground for progress. Here are eight burial sites that came to light in this unconventional manner.


The construction of Rome's subway has unearthed everything from a 2nd-century home decorated with mosaics and frescos to a 2300-year-old aqueduct. The San Giovanni station, slated to open in 2018, will feature displays of artifacts found during its excavation, such as Renaissance ceramics and the remains of a 1st-century agricultural fountain.

Back in 2016, extension work on Line C ran into a 2nd-century military barracks with 39 rooms, likely used by Emperor Hadrian's army, as well as a mass grave of 13 skeletons. The dead may have been members of the elite Praetorian Guard, protectors of the Roman emperor. Investigations are ongoing, although officials have planned for the barracks to be incorporated into the station architecture. Its opening date remains in limbo as archaeological finds continue to slow its construction.


In 1991, construction of a federal office building revealed a colonial-era burial ground in Lower Manhattan. The graves, dating back to the 1690s, had been lost due to landfill and development, yet were identified as part of the African burial grounds that in the 17th century were located outside the old city.

Banned from interment in white cemeteries, free and enslaved Africans and African Americans had established a place to give respect to their dead, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 burials. Thanks to grassroots activism, including protests against continued construction, the site is now commemorated with the African Burial Ground National Monument, which opened in 2006.

It's not the sole black cemetery to be buried under development in New York: The Second African Burial Ground, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, is located below today's Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side; and in East Harlem, a 17th-century slave burial ground, discovered by construction workers at a bus depot, awaits a planned memorial.


Burrowing deep under London, the ongoing Crossrail commuter rail project has exposed obscure layers of the city's past—and a treasure trove of history. Along with medieval ice skates and a Tudor bowling ball, archaeologists have identified two mass graves. One has 13 skeletons of people who probably died in the 14th century of Black Death (with DNA on their teeth still holding the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis); a larger site has 42 skeletons of victims of the Great Plague of 1665. The study of the Great Plague skeletons, excavated in 2015 by Museum of London Archaeology, similarly showed traces of the disease in their old teeth. (Luckily the bacteria is no longer active, so no need to dust off your plague doctor beak mask.)

While such "plague pits" have long been rumored—some urban legends say the London Underground had to curve to avoid messy heaps of bodies—study of the sites indicated that there was in fact great care taken with the deceased. The bodies were placed in individual coffins, giving them some dignity even in this hasty mass burial.


Sometimes, to borrow a line from Poltergeist, people only move the headstones when relocating a cemetery, and stray bones and coffins are left behind (digging up the dead is generally unpleasant work). That seemed to be the case with a graveyard unearthed at a construction site on Arch Street in Philadelphia in March 2017. The dozens of coffins that were discovered are believed to be part of the First Baptist Church Burial Ground, established in 1707 and supposedly moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1859. The Mütter Institute spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign for analysis and reinterment of the bones, and volunteer archaeologists convened at the site, racing against time to map the grounds and remove the burials of more than 100 people. Their remains were carefully analyzed.

Archaeologists subsequently found the remains of more than 400 people at the site as construction went on in other areas. Building at the site continues, as does the grassroots-funded research on the bones (you can follow the team's progress at the Arch Street Bones Project website).


In 2013, construction on a subway in Thessaloniki, Greece, turned up the grave of a woman buried around 2300 years ago. The Early Hellenistic lady was interred with a gold olive branch wreath.

Surprisingly, this wasn't the first such skeleton found during subway construction to be so regally crowned. In 2008, another Hellenistic woman was discovered with four gold wreaths and gold earrings in the shape of dogs' heads, all indicators of wealth and respectability—something marred a bit by the sewage pipe that had wrecked part of her grave.


While digging a trench in 2013 for a gas pipeline in Saskatchewan, Canada, a contractor noticed bone fragments in the soil that turned out to be 1000-year-old human remains.

Construction was halted so First Nations elders and archaeologists could examine the area. Ultimately, the pipeline company opted to tunnel deeper to avoid disturbing the ancient burials.

It was only one of many instances of massive infrastructure projects coming in contact with pre-colonial burial grounds. In 2017, for example, road construction in Duluth, Minnesota desecrated graves when the state's department of transportation failed to evaluate the area for artifacts prior to breaking ground.


Near Weymouth in Dorset, England, a mass grave of more than 50 young men was discovered in 2009 by archaeologists doing a survey before road construction began. All the victims had been killed brutally, at once, with multiple blows from a sharp weapon visible on their bones, and their heads had been severed. In 2010, researchers identified them as Vikings by radio-carbon dating the bones to 910 to 1030 CE, when the English clashed with Viking invaders. Analysis of the isotopes in the teeth indicated Scandinavian origins. Due to their lack of clothing and their similar manner of death, they were likely executed as captives. They're now part of the Dorset County Museum.


Among the roughly 38,000 people interred beneath a neighborhood on Chicago's Far Northwest Side are the impoverished inmates of the Cook County almshouse and patients from the county insane asylum. The area was known as Dunning, and its squalid institutions were so well known that a judge in 1889 declared them a "tomb for the living." The 20 acres of the site also included a potter's field for the indigent and unclaimed, and the burials of more than 100 unidentified dead from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The potter's field was revealed in 1989 during construction on luxury homes. Sewer workers who were laying pipes also turned up a corpse that was so well-preserved his handlebar mustache was still visible. Bodies were relocated to a site now called Read-Dunning Memorial Park, giving these dead some recognition in the city for the first time.

Vulcan, YouTube
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Microsoft's Co-Founder Finds WWII Ship Lost for 76 Years
Vulcan, YouTube
Vulcan, YouTube

An incalculable number of ships remain lost to history after circumstances—or enemy fire—prompted them to sink to the bottom of the ocean. While all of them carry stories of the crew, ships downed during World War II often have particularly poignant legacies. Thanks to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, we now have a geological marker for a ship that harbored one of the greater tragedies of American soldiers in World War II, as Gizmodo reports.

Allen's Vulcan, Inc. shipwreck exploration team recently announced they've located the USS Juneau, a cruiser downed during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. The ship was discovered 2.6 miles below the surface off the coast of the Solomon Islands.

The Juneau was remarkable in World War II history for having five brothers, the Sullivans from Iowa, stationed there simultaneously, a decision that could prove disastrous if tragedy struck—and in the case of the Juneau, it did. All five insisted they wouldn't serve in the Navy unless they could serve together. All were killed and 682 other sailors perished when the ship went down after Japanese forces launched two torpedoes through it.

Allen's team located the ship via a research vessel dubbed Petrel that performed a sonar scan of South Pacific waters. A remote-controlled vehicle made visual confirmation of the wreck shortly thereafter.

Allen and his team have no current plans to disclose the exact location of the ship so it can remain in the water in peace. His crew made headlines in August 2017 when they located the USS Indianapolis, a famous wartime wreck that saw the surviving members of the crew preyed upon by sharks. The story was dramatized by the character of Quint (Robert Shaw) in a well-known scene from 1975's Jaws.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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