#23 – Prehistoric & Ancient Feats of Strength

March 27, 2024 by VAHVA Fitness

Samuli & Eero go through various ancient and prehistoric feats of strength and achievements in the physical culture. How strong were the cavemen and ancients?

A Timeline of Strength from The Neolithic Period to Now

We’ve recently been discussing ancient training methods a lot, and the discussions have generated a lot of interest. We had an in-depth discussion here where we covered how we at Vahva Fitness define strength.

Today we want to talk about the history of man, from the Neolithic times through to ancient Greece, right up to today, and go into the problems associated with the modern lifestyle.

In this post we’ll cover:

  • The Neolithic man’s strength as evidenced by bone density and the changes that came with agriculture
  • The impressive strength of the ancient Greeks
  • Modern-day strengths and weaknesses
  • What we can do to stay strong and healthy.

Let’s start at the beginning, and go all the way back to our prehistoric roots. 

How Strong is Our History?

The Neolithic Hunter-Gatherer

The hunter-gatherer of the Neolithic Period (roughly 10,000 BCE) is so far gone that we can never know with certainty just how strong they were, but they did leave behind fossils, and from bones scientists have been able to estimate their load-bearing activities.

Despite what you may think, bones change quite significantly depending on how you live. All the physical work you do will leave an imprint on that bone tissue.

A study published in 2014 measured the trabecular bones (the spongy stuff inside the bone that gives them added strength) of Neolithic agriculturalists and foragers from eastern North America (the Illinois region).

They concluded that ‘…more highly mobile human populations have trabecular bone structure in the femoral head that is similar to what would be expected for a nonhuman primate of the same body size.’

They also found that the bones of hunter-gatherers from 7,000 years ago were approximately 20% denser when compared to agricultural farmers from 1,000 years ago.

Further, the average trabecular bone density for all fossils in the study, including early Homo sapiens, was above that of the modern man. That means that we’ve only gotten weaker.

An article discussing the study highlights ‘human hunter-gatherers from around 7,000 years ago had bones comparable in strength to modern orangutans’.

It goes on to say ‘The fact is, we're human, we can be as strong as an orangutan -- we're just not, because we are not challenging our bones with enough loading…’

Now, a common counter-argument to the suggestion that ancient people were stronger often comes around to their physiology, but these studies show that there’s no reason humans can’t develop to the comparative strength of an orangutan, even today.

When we look at the Neolithic man, we can assume that he was simply an athlete by being alive. This suggests that the modern man is nowhere near his potential.

But soon enough, the hunter-gatherers settled down and discovered agriculture. This is what happened.

The Agriculturalists

The agricultural lifestyle of the past was tough compared to the modern lifestyle, but it was nowhere near as tough as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and the differences in their bone density show it.

But those subsequent agriculturalists, with a more sedentary lifestyle than the hunter-gatherers, still had bone density far surpassing modern man.

This study focused on the prehistoric Central European agriculturalists, specifically the women. 

They focused on the humerus (the bone in the upper arm) rather than the femur, and they found that they were responsible for a significant amount of the manual labor of the agricultural time.

They concluded that the mean bending and torsional rigidity in the left humerus was ‘significantly higher among Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age women than rowers, football players, and controls’, and the right humerus was ‘significantly higher among Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age women than football players and control subjects’.

This means that agricultural women (up to 850 AD) had strength metrics in their upper body significantly higher than elite-level rowers who train up to 21 hours per week with an average of 7 years of rowing experience. This is crazy strength!

Although their bone density decreased compared with the hunter-gatherers, the agricultural people maintained impressive strength through high-repetition manual labour.

Let's move now to historical records of strength, as demonstrated by the ancient Greeks.

The Stone Age of Strength

The stone of Bybon 140kg (316lb)

Lifting as much as possible is a form of strength, and one that mankind has long celebrated.

Before the barbell, the ancients would lift stones. Taking this form of strength as the measurement, ancient people were still super strong.

Lifting stones appear to be widespread throughout modern-day Europe, but over 2,000 years, they tend to get lost and broken, and it becomes tough to recognise a lifting stone as different to another stone.

Evidence suggests that as early as 600 BC, the Ancient Greeks were using lifting stones, with one of the greatest found in Olympia.

When it comes to ancient personal bests (PBs), there is proof literally carved in stones.

The Bybon Stone was inscribed with the following: ‘Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me over [his] head with one hand.’ (ΒΥΒΟΝ ΤΕΤΕΡΕΙ ΧΕΡΙ ΥΠΕΡ ΚΕΦΑΛΑΣ ΥΠΕΡΕΒΑΛΕΤΟ ΟΦΟΛΑ)

There are other translations that suggest the stone was thrown overhead, not lifted.
The stone is approximately 140kg (316lb).

Thera stone 480kg (1060lb)

Yet another stone, the Thera Stone, weighing an insane 480kg (1,060lb), bears the inscription ‘Eumastas, son of Kritobolos, lifted me off the earth.’

We can’t know the technique that these ancient strongmen used, but human anatomy hasn’t changed much.

It's fair to assume they took the same approach as the modern strongman, lifting the stone onto their legs, and pushing it up from there.

The shape and unbalanced weight distribution add incredible difficulty to the lift when compared to a barbell. These ancient lifters also didn’t use weight belts or chalk; however, it’s possible they used sand to help with grip.

But using these uncomfortable objects that come in weird shapes and sizes, that are hard to hold onto, creates great functional strength.

It’s one of the most transferable ways of training. A good example we regularly train with is the round sandbag. It is heavy, and not balanced, and your grip gets an incredible workout because of this.

Today we have developed incredible lift-strength through the barbell, but the strength of the ancients may have been far more functional.

And these ancients were not giants like the modern strongmen. This study suggests that the average Hellenistic Greek male stood at approximately 171cm (5ft 7in), so we can’t compare them in absolute terms but pound for pound, it's probable they were much stronger.

This only makes these ancient stone lifts that much more impressive because the people were normal size. At best, they were big for their time, but nothing like the strongmen of today.

And these ancients were lifting stones. Imagine what they could have lifted if they had barbells!

From Record to Myth

Beyond records carved in stone, looking to myth, the ancient Greeks suggest that Milo of Croton carried a full-grown bull.

He began carrying it around his shoulders when it was a calf and continued to do so until it was fully grown.

He later became known for various feats of strength, one of which was carrying a full-grown bull across the length of the Olympic stadium, before roasting and eating it.

With these tales it is impossible to say where the fable begins and history ends, but fables often contain legends from the past, and the humans that succeeded in these superhuman tasks almost surely existed.

But where has this historical strength left us today?

The Journey From Strong to Sedentary

The Giants of Our Times

Europe's strongest man competition. See how the lifter is using wraps and a suit.

‘The modern person is the strongest person that has ever existed’ seems to be a commonly held position.

People look at ‘Thor’ (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) or Eddie Hall lifting insane weights and assume that this is the pinnacle, the best it's ever been. When it comes to these lifts, it's likely but being strong goes far beyond these lifts.

Strength isn’t just a number or a lift, it’s a versatile topic. You can’t define strength by numbers or a specific lift alone, as we discussed in depth here.

The strongman deadlift world record is currently 501 kg (1,104lb), set in 2020 by Thor, but strongmen and powerlifters typically use belts, knee supports, and wrist straps which impacts the amount you can lift.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) estimated that the use of equipment increases the maximal lifts such as these up to 100-150kg (200-300lb) which is insane. They've also estimated how much wraps, suits and belts specifically impact the lifts.

Trying to compare a strongman deadlift with an Ancient Greek stone lift - even without the supportive equipment - is like comparing apples and oranges, because the shape of the objects is so different.

Additionally, using PEDs or steroids is common and many of these athletes are also eating insane amounts of food, creating crazy mass and bulk, which makes it much easier to lift these huge weights.

arthur saxon

Going back to the early 20th century ‘The Iron Master’ Arthur Saxon, set and still holds the record for the bent press, of 168 kg (370lb).

Now, the bent press is much more comfortable to hold because it’s a dumbbell when compared with The Bybon Stone. It has a handle, but that’s where the fair comparisons end.

And Arthur Saxon was doing this long before steroids became popular practice. But the environment of his time also had fewer toxins, which we believe are the fundamental problem affecting modern man.

Saxon was not the only record setter of history: Thomas Topham, Alexander Zass and Louis Cyr also have records not beaten today. And all of these people lived when steroids were not even invented.

Alexander Zass was considered the strongest man at one point and he had a regular figure weighing less than 80kg (176lb).

The Dangers of our Times

Despite all of our technical and medical innovations, the modern man is rapidly moving towards becoming the weakest – and arguably the least intelligent – he’s ever been. 

Although we have more technology as a people, and have developed in this regard, it’s inaccurate to say that we’re stronger because we have the strength to lift barbells.

We may have a few individual, incredibly strong people today, but collectively we’re far weaker. 

On top of that, machines and AI will soon be able to do all the thinking for us, and as the above studies prove, when we stop responding to stressors, we lose ability and strength (and bone density).

Our lifestyle isn’t forcing us to think and act on our feet anymore. Everything is planned out and controlled.

This has been happening since we made the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and it’s accelerated rapidly with our evolution since then.

This study shows that testosterone levels have dropped consistently since 1987. They state that it does not appear to relate to activities like smoking and obesity, which suggests that it may, in fact, simply relate to our lifestyle.

eero westerberg in moscow

As we’ve developed our training practices, we’ve realised that the closer you live to nature, and the further you get away from modern diets and conveniences, the healthier and stronger you become.

Remember, those agricultural women showed higher strength metrics than modern athletes.

They most likely completed no high-strength lifts, but they were working constantly. It suggests that the body must simply have responded better to every stimulus.

The suppression effect of the modern diet must play a big part in limiting our potential.

Medicine, pills, caffeine, alcohol, preservatives, processed food, all these things are contributing and holding modern man back from his potential. And as it does this, it’s making us weaker and unhealthier.

But our diet is just one aspect. Our environments are also so polluted with poor air that the training we are doing doesn’t work so well. The environment is limiting and hindering our potential.

Improving through Removing (Via Negativa)

Move it or Lose it

Art work for Iron King Method.

We can look to the ancient Greeks once more to improve our health. The concept of via negativa goes back to Dionysius the Areopagite, and can be effectively applied to our lifestyles and diets.

By far the best thing you can do to improve overall health and strength is remove the negative things that come from modernity. This ranges from your diet to your habits, anything that is harmful to you over the long term.

This doesn’t mean we should be turning our back on developments like water sanitation and better access to health; these things are beneficial to us. But near-universal access to processed foods, seed oils and sugars is certainly not helping us.

The same can be said for desk-based work. You don’t need to completely turn your back on it, but approach it with awareness. Get up and move, stretch, shake everything out, and look into the distance.

Your body should default to a strong body. When cortisol and inflammation levels are low and testosterone levels are normal, the body will maintain healthy muscle mass with almost no effort.

There are studies which show that testosterone replacement therapy with no additional training improves body composition through a decrease in fat mass, with an increase in lean body mass.

This shows that our continually decreasing testosterone levels are leading us to be weaker than we need to be. And testosterone is not the only thing that affects us - cortisol level and everything else has a great impact as well.

The conditions of the past pushed the ancient man to be stronger. Danger and a lack of comfort force us to grow, as it did for our hunter-gathering forebears.

morning routine 20xx

We’re not suggesting everyone to become a physical labourer and work 12 hour shifts, but doing movement every single day that stresses the body will help. Our Morning Routine 20XX is an easy way to add that little bit of movement to the day.

The training we suggest at Vahva Fitness isn’t about one-off workouts, but a new methodology and a new way of thinking about fitness. This is a paradigm shift.

When we look at the agricultural women of antiquity, we see the power in this method of low-impact high repetition.

Our culture is caught up in the super-intense training methods, and we enjoy these methods too, but less intense methods can be just as beneficial to long-term health.

When you do the work every day, it’ll make you stronger and healthier.

Low-impact health training has huge impacts on our health. Programs like our Morning Routine 20XX, mobility movements as highlighted in Movement 20XX Method, even Qigong, all of these comparatively easy programs provide huge benefits to health and wellbeing.

Stay consistent, do the work every day, and do it over time. You’ll become far stronger and much healthier.

The hunter-gatherers of antiquity were similar to modern day athletes in terms of bone density. So, if you move like a hunter-gatherer (or an athlete) from the time you’re a child, you will be developing protection against things like osteoporosis.

The studies highlighted throughout the article have all focused on the bones, and they all consistently showed that healthy bone mass was associated with lots of movement.

To say it another way: the decrease in bone mass is related to the decrease in movement.

A Forgotten Movement for Leg Dynamicity and Elasticity

Both the hunter-gatherer and the agriculturalist had very low environmental toxin levels, compared to today, but the lifestyle became more sedentary and that impacted the bone density.

These ancient people had no reason to stop moving. They would celebrate with movement – joy and fun were associated with movement. We need to remember this.

Supersize or Optimize?

The ancient Greeks ate what they had when they had it. This was often cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, milk, cheese and a little fish and meat. We’re not talking about an optimised diet in terms of macro and micronutrients.

It’s commonly suggested that life expectancies in ancient Greece were incredibly short, but this study found 83 people with an average and median age of approximately 70 years old.

Three centenarians Aristarchos, Democritos, and Gorgias (who reportedly lived to 108!) were not included in the results.

So it’s clear that the absence of bad things goes further than the addition of more good things.

You don’t need the maximum level of nutrients and vitamins, but avoiding the things that cause poor digestion and inflammation goes a long way.

What we eat feeds the good as well as the bad. To try and combat issues by adding something new, rather than by removing something, is like adding another layer to the problem.

After a period of fasting, you feel great. By removing everything, good and bad, you stop feeding any of the bad things that are living within you.

We can’t go back to the days of the hunter-gatherer, and we’re definitely not advocating that, but in your training, and in your lifestyle generally, you can try to bring elements of this lifestyle back.

Returning to Nature

From the age of the hunter-gather to the agriculturalist, right up to the modern lifestyle we know, our lifestyles have changed and our movement habits stopped.

Populations grew, we developed crops that sustained more people, and the lifestyle became more sedentary. The agricultural people were still active, but the intensity of the hunt was replaced with the repetition of the farm.

The ancient man lived in environments that called them to explore.

Perhaps it was instinct, the desire to find out what was around the next corner, or perhaps it was the thrill of the hunt, but whatever it was, they were constantly moving.

Why wouldn’t you move?

The most important thing we can do for our health is daily movement, combined with a decrease in consumption of the bad things. A good diet is a diet absent of bad things.

As your health improves, you develop a natural feeling for health and it gets progressively less important to assess and measure. Nutrients play a part when we start to look at the difference between a good diet and a very good diet, but absence of the bad stuff is the main point.

A more natural way of living will help to restore your internal body ecology, and support you in your journey to maintain good health.

And most importantly, to stay strong!


samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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