What’s on : Lectures

Bones – imaging prehistoric and modern women

12 Jun 2018
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Dr Alison Macintosh, University of Cambridge

Event Information

Bones – imaging prehistoric and modern women

Dr Alison Macintosh, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

Human bones are highly adaptable, tailoring their size and shape in response to the conditions to which they are exposed during growth and adulthood. Because of this adaptability during life, human skeletal remains can provide a wealth of information about the living conditions and behaviour patterns of men and women in the past. However, interpreting that information can be challenging, and we don’t yet have a good understanding of how women’s bones in particular reflect developmental and behavioural factors. This talk outlines the ways in which we are using cutting-edge imaging technologies and the study of living athletes to better understand variation in women’s bone strength, as well as body size, muscle, and fat, and what this new information means for more richly reconstructing prehistoric women’s lives from skeletal remains.

This research was funded by the European Research Council, grant agreement n.617627′ and an ERC Starting Grant (ERC-2010-StG263441). The event is hosted by Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

A lecture for the York Festival of Ideas York Festival of Ideas

Member’s report

Women in the past appear to have had relatively inactive occupations because comparison with men’s bones suggested a lifestyle like that of sedentary modern humans. Imaging bones and muscle in modern athletes reveals significant differences in bone structure between men and women. These differences can be used to infer how much more active women in the past actually were. Women’s bones have a different mineral composition owing to the demands of pregnancy and lactation and develop differently under occupational stress. On this basis, prehistoric bones demonstrate, for example, that some women developed strong arms from such activities as grinding corn for hours on end.

There are also dissimilarities between men and women in their bodies’ use of fat as an energy source. A 2016 project monitoring ultra-marathon runners in Spain demonstrated that of the women runners who finished the run, there was a greater loss of fat than among the men (whose bodies behave differently), but the women who didn’t finish lost even more. The implication is that successful women athlete’s bodies utilise fat more efficiently and they may ultimately perform better in endurance events. In evolutionary terms, fat conferred an advantage as an energy source. In modern sedentary lifestyles it is less advantageous.

Catherine Brophy