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Ancient Finns Saved Energy by Skating

4,000 years before Nokia, Finnish folks created ice skates.

By Emily Anthes
Feb 7, 2008 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:29 AM
Image courtesy of Federico Formenti | NULL


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An icy landscape studded with frozen lakes, the wintry terrain of southern Finland appears to be the birthplace of ice skating.

To trace the sport’s origins, researchers studied remnants of bone-and-leather skates found throughout northern Europe and dating to at least 2000 B.C. They re-created these ancient skates and gave them to volunteers, who glided on ice while scientists measured the energy spent. Then the researchers entered findings in a computer program that simulated journeys through five different European regions. For each region, the computer calculated the energy spent by travelers who walked around every lake as opposed to those who skated across them.

In places where lakes are relatively uncommon, like northern Germany, a human making a 10-kilometer trek would have saved two or three percent of his energy by skating across frozen lakes. But in southern Finland, there are so many lakes that those with skates could save as much as 10 percent of their metabolic energy.

“These tools were used for traveling and to save energy and time when people had to go hunting and fishing,” said Federico Formenti, a human locomotion biomechanist at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s authors. “The energy saved in the southern area of Finland was far greater than the energy saved in any other area,” making it the most likely birthplace of the ice skate.

But the Finns don’t get all the credit, Formenti says. The next big innovation—the more efficient wooden skates with steel blades—likely originated in the Netherlands,where extensive, man-made canals provided new skating opportunities.

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