From farming to sedentary lifestyles - how 6,000 years has transformed the human body
New research conducted by the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge University, has examined human bones over the course of 6,000 years to determine how changes in lifestyle have affected our anatomy. The findings have revealed that the transformation from farmers to ‘couch potatoes’ has led to the weakening of the human body.
Anthropologist Alison Macintosh tracked the changes in human anatomy but studying the bones from grave sites throughout central Europe, dating from 5,300 BC to 850 AD, a time span of 6,150 years. Using a portable 3D laser surface scanner, Ms Macintosh studied the femurs (thigh bones), and tibiae (shin bones), of skeletons from Germany, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Serbia.
Her results show that after the emergence of agriculture, male shin bones became less rigid, reducing the ability to resist bending, twisting and compression, and the bones of both men and women became less strengthened to loads in one direction more than another. Overall, bones became progressively weaker, leading to a decline in mobility. Within just 3,000 years, average mobility had dropped to the level of current Cambridge University undergraduates whose lifestyles were categorised as ‘sedentary’. In contrast, bones from the earliest male farmers, dating back 7,300 years, are equivalent to the modern-day bones of cross-country runners.
Ms Macintosh maintains that as new technology contributed to an easier life over the ensuing millennia, humans became further removed from their athletic ancestors.
“Following the transition to agriculture in central Europe, males were more affected than females by cultural and technological changes that reduced the need for long-distance travel or heavy physical work,” she said. “This also means that, as people began to specialise in tasks other than just farming and food production, such as metalworking, fewer people were regularly doing tasks that were very strenuous on their legs.”
Another very interesting finding was that the strongest thigh bones of all the females examined came from Iron Age women dating between 1,450 and 850 BC. One explanation could be that the Iron Age sample included skeletons from the Hungarian Scythians, known for their Amazonian female warriors who participated in combat.
Scythian females were known to be fierce warriors
However, Ms Macintosh is not too sure about this conclusion because if the strength in the thigh bones of Iron Age women was due to high mobility, it should be seen in their shin bones as well, which it wasn’t. She said: “It could be something other than mobility that is driving this Iron Age female bone strength, possibly a difference in body size or genetics.”
Ms Macintosh concluded that the transition from high-mobility tasks, such as tending crops and livestock, to task specialisation, in which fewer people needed to be highly mobile, coupled with technological innovation, meant that humans were using their bodies less and less. “The overall result is a reduction in mobility of the population as a whole, accompanied by a reduction in the strength of the lower limb bones.”
Featured image: Human body and skeleton. Photo source: Fotolia