What do the humerus bones of Neolithic women tell us?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

This is a 3D model created using a scan of an upper arm (humerus) bone from a prehistoric woman agriculturalist.This bone is from a North African population, and did not feature in the study itself, but is an example of the type of bone and research methodology used in the study. Credit: Cambridge University.

Dr. Sabrina Agarwal, a biological anthropologist, talks about how we can tell strength from bones, and how that might just change our view of Neolithic women.

When you think of the strongest women alive today, athletes like tennis player Serena Williams or UFC fighter Ronda Rousey probably come to mind first. But, if Williams and Rousey ever had the chance to go up against a prehistoric woman from Central Europe, it’s likely the Neolithic contestant would have given those modern athletes a run for their money.

In a new study published in Science Advances, researchers examined the humerus bone of prehistoric women, and say that the women wielded the upper arm strength of today’s elite rowers. Dr. Sabrina Agarwal, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, joins Ira to discuss how these powerful women got so buff, and how the research changes views of gender roles in prehistoric agricultural societies.

Print the excerpt transcript.


  • These researchers were able to learn about increased strength from the bones of ancient women. What else do you think we can learn from ancient bones?
  • What evidence led researchers to conclude that these Neolithic women were engaged in repetitive manual labor? How is this related to the way bone develops when we are alive?
  • The evidence from this study related to the advent of agriculture and already points to misconceptions about women’s roles. Do you think this has implications for the male provisioning theory? How would you suggest scientists go about trying to verify or debunk this theory?
  • Dr. Agarwal cites the introduction of bias based on preconceived notions of women as the “weaker sex” in some earlier observations of ancient bones. Why is the introduction of bias in scientific investigation so problematic?
  • Why can’t you identify gender based on one bone? Why can’t you use genetic analysis in this case?

Activity Suggestions

Additional Resources

Technology is helping us study ancient remains, even mummified ones.

Vocabulary: biological anthropologist, humerus, Neolithic, mechanical loading, activity, organ

Next Generation Science StandardsLS4.A: Evidence of Common Ancestry and DiversityCC1: PatternsCC6: Structure and Function, and SEP7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Can be used to build towards the following performance expectations: MS-LS4–1MS-LS4–2, and HS-LS4–1.


Xochitl Garcia @msxgarcia -Education program assistant @scifri and 2015 #grosvenorteacherfellow @NatGeoEducation. #STEM Educator obsessed with food and board games.

Science Friday Spoonfuls @scifri ‏ - The latest and greatest science news from public radio’s Science Friday, ready for classroom use.