In many areas of the world that lack a transportation infrastructure, people routinely carry extraordinary loads supported by their heads, for example the Sherpa of the Himalayas and the women of East Africa. It has previously been shown that African women from the Kikuyu and Luo tribes can carry loads substantially more cheaply than army recruits; however, the mechanism for their economy has remained unknown. Here we investigate, using a force platform, the mechanics of carrying head-supported loads by Kikuyu and Luo women. The weight-specific mechanical work, required to maintain the motion of the common centre of mass of the body and load, decreases with load in the African women, whereas it increases in control subjects. The decrease in work by the African women is a result of a greater conservation of mechanical energy resulting from an improved pendulum-like transfer of energy during each step, back and forth between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy of the centre of mass.