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Women's Role In The European Agricultural Revolution Revealed


All right, I want you to imagine for a moment going back in time 6,000 years when people in Europe were just starting to settle down and farm. A new study tells us something about that time. It uncovers the hidden role women played in driving this first agricultural revolution. Here's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Early farming was really hard. There were no fancy tools, so people were basically digging with wooden sticks and stones. Alison Macintosh is an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. When she studied the bones of ancient men, she could see signs of this strenuous work.

ALISON MACINTOSH: We saw these really big, quite strong leg bones in the early farming men kind of up around what you see in living cross-country runners.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, these guys were buff like athletes. But when they compared the bones of ancient women to ancient men, the women looked like they were couch potatoes. Macintosh thought this couldn't be right.

MACINTOSH: We didn't really think that these women were just super sedentary all the time not doing anything, right? That's probably not accurate representation of behavior.

DOUCLEFF: So she decided to do something revolutionary. She focused just on women and decided to compare the ancient women bones to those of women today, including athletes like rowers. Then it became clear. These ancient women weren't weak. In particular, they had really studly arms.

MACINTOSH: On average, they had stronger arms, both left and right arms, than the rowers.

DOUCLEFF: Rowers who worked their arms hard for 20 hours a week. The findings published in the journal Science Advances shows that ancient women were doing huge amounts of strenuous labor on early farms, more than previously thought.

MACINTOSH: What's great about it is that we're able to kind of highlight this hidden history of women's work across thousands of years that we were really underestimating before.

DOUCLEFF: Underestimating because some archeologists we're assuming women's physiology was the same as men's. Penny Bickle is at the University of York. She says there's been this thinking that men are the stand-in for a whole society.

PENNY BICKLE: There's been a focus on men or male skeletons more than women.

DOUCLEFF: With studies like this, that's changing and rewriting history. Brigitte Holt is a biological anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She says, now with this study, there's no doubt women were right next to men in the field.

BRIGITTE HOLT: Hoeing, planting, harvesting, chopping, chopping wood and getting water - and all this with small children.

DOUCLEFF: So they were really, like, ancient working moms.

HOLT: Yes, exactly. They're ancient working moms. Things have not changed.

DOUCLEFF: Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.