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A pain in the neck - head-carrying ‘not easier for African women’, Abertay research finds

Video shows research in South Africa (no sound)

Contrary to a common scientific assumption, African women find carrying water or bundles of firewood on their head no more efficient and a lot more painful than other methods, research at the University of Abertay Dundee has found.

Studies led by Ray Lloyd, sports scientist and Head of the School of Social and Health Sciences at Abertay University, found that women do not find it easier carrying on their head, and this doesn’t get easier with practice. It is also very painful, and the women wouldn’t use head-carrying if they had a choice.

Previous research published in Nature had claimed that head-carrying gave a significant advantage over other transport methods, such as carrying heavy loads by hand or on a person’s back. However, the new finding disproves this commonly accepted claim, which has been cited as evidence in over 100 scientific journals.

Ray said: “As a sport scientist living in Botswana for eight years, I was fascinated by the ease with which the women seemed to carry very heavy loads such as firewood and water on their head.

“When I examined the literature there was some evidence that head-loading might be an extremely efficient way of carrying loads. It was claimed that the women could carry loads of up to 20% of their own bodyweight with no extra energy requirement – the so-called ‘free-ride’ hypothesis.”

He added: “The original studies were based on very limited sample sizes so I wanted to confirm this with a bigger group. However, my results suggest quite the opposite: that head-loading is no more efficient than other methods, and is very painful for the women.

“The truth is that head-carrying is a necessity, borne of the need to carry essential items such as water or firewood over difficult terrain, not a preference.”

Working in laboratories at South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Ray led a team of scientists analysing the physical exertions of Xhosa women from the Western Cape carrying loads in different ways.

The sample of 32 local women included individuals with over 10 years’ experience of head-carrying and others with no experience at all. Each group was analysed walking on a treadmill with no load, a load on their back, and a load on their head.

Ray explained: “One of the most interesting findings was that previous experience of head-carrying did not seem to offer any benefits, and some women with no experience were the most efficient at head-carrying.

“It also didn’t seem to protect against pain and discomfort. We interviewed the women and all the experienced head-loaders reported that neck pain was a big problem for them. They reported having to give neck massages to their mothers and grandmothers whenever they returned from fetching water.

“All the women agreed that they would prefer an alternative method of transporting essential items such as water and firewood.”

The original study which this work suggests is not accurate has been cited over 100 times in the scientific literature, more than double that of any other paper in this area.

Ray is currently exploring how the research can be further developed, and wants to analyse older women with even greater experience of head-loading. He plans to use X-rays to see if this technique causes long-term damage to the neck, as well as assessing the energy requirements of carrying water and firewood in real-life, rural settings.

The work on head-carrying has been kindly supported by the Carnegie Trust for Higher Education in Scotland, and papers were recently published in both the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Applied Ergonomics.


For media enquiries, including copies of the scientific papers, please contact Chris Wilson (Communications Officer) – T: 01382 308935 M: 07837 250284 E:

The full scientific papers articles are available to download from the Abertay University online research repository.


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