A Healed Femur Is the Earliest Sign of True Civilization

Margaret Mead? Paul Brand? Philip Yancey? Steven C. Beering? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A primordial human who fell and broke a femur (thigh bone) would have faced terrible odds of survival. A vulnerable individual who was unable to walk and gather food would probably expire. Yet, a caring and supportive culture would enable recovery. An injured individual would be supplied with food and would be nursed back to health.

Apparently, an influential scientist asserted that the earliest sign of true civilization in the fossil record of humans was a healed femur because it indicated the existence of a compassionate society. This assertion has been attributed to the prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead. Of course, many societies simultaneously display compassion, indifference, and cruelty. Would you please explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The first match known to QI appeared in the 1980 book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body” by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Acclaimed physician Brand described a lecture given by Margaret Mead that he attended. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1980 Copyright, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Chapter: Bones: A Frame, Quote Page 68, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

To her, evidence of the earliest true civilization was a healed femur, a leg bone, which she held up before us in the lecture hall. She explained that such healings were never found in the remains of competitive, savage societies. There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But the healed femur showed that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him at personal sacrifice.

Margaret Mead died in 1978, and the accuracy of this anecdote depends on the memory and veracity of Brand.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1968 the book “Talks with Social Scientists” contained an interview with Margaret Mead. A representative of Wilberforce University in Ohio asked Mead about civilization, and she gave an answer that differed substantially from the quotation under examination:[ref] 1968 Copyright, Talks with Social Scientists, Edited by Charles F. Madden, Chapter: Margaret Mead on what is a culture? what is a civilization?, Start Page 3, Quote Page 12,  Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Wilberforce: When does a culture become a civilization?

DR. MEAD: Well, this is a matter of definition. Looking at the past we have called societies civilizations when they have had great cities, elaborate division of labor, some form of keeping records. These are the things that have made civilization. Some form of script, not necessarily our kind of script, but some form of script or record keeping; ability to build great, densely populated cities and to divide up labor so that they could be maintained.

In 1993 Brand and his co-author published “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants”. Brand described Mead’s lecture again, and he provided further vivid details:[ref] 1993, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Chapter 17: Intensifiers of Pain, Quote Page 274 and 275, Zondervan and HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Early in my career I heard a lecture from the anthropologist Margaret Mead. “What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” she asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.” High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had been fractured, and then solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find clues of violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

In 1996 Purdue University President Steven C. Beering referred to Mead’s viewpoint in his commencement address. The newspaper account misspelled “Mead” as “Meade”:[ref] 1996 August 5, Journal and Courier, 930 diplomas awarded Sunday by (Staff reports), Quote Page C1, Column 6, Lafayette, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Beering recounted a story how anthropologist Margaret Meade responded when a student asked how she knew when an ancient culture had become civilized.

“You might think, as that student did, that the answer would be the discovery of a bit of pottery, or a tool, or a sign of the development of agriculture,” Beering said. “But Dr. Meade had a surprising response. She said she knew that an ancient people had reached the point of becoming a true society whenever she found a healed femur.”

“In other words, the first step to civilization is an act of human compassion, and it becomes the foundation to all the great achievements of humankind.”

In 1998 the tale appeared in a newspaper in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada within a section about volunteering:[ref] 1998 April 19, Regina Sun, Volunteer Week, (Anecdote submitted by Rich Christ to Energize Inc.’s web site), Quote Page 19, Column 1, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

It seems that someone asked the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “What is the first sign you look for to tell of an ancient civilization?” The interviewer had in mind a tool or article of clothing. Ms. Mead surprised him by answering, “a healed femur (thigh bone)”.

When someone breaks a femur, they can’t survive to hunt, fish or escape enemies unless they have help from someone else. Thus, a healed femur indicates that someone else helped that person, rather than abandoning them and saving only themselves.

In 2009 a compilation of “Wisdom Well Said” included a pertinent entry:[ref] 2009, Wisdom Well Said, Collected by Charles Francis, Section: Helping Others, Quote Page 199, Levine Mesa Press, El Prado, New Mexico. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

Someone once asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), “What is the first sign you look for to tell you of an ancient civilization?”

The interviewer had in mind a tool or article of clothing. But Margaret Mead surprised him by answering, “a healed femur” (thigh bone, for those of you who didn’t study anatomy) . . .

In conclusion, in 1968 Margaret Mead defined civilization by referring to conventional notions such as the emergence of cities, the division of labor, and scripts for record keeping.

Paul Brand was the key propagator of the anecdote with the femur bone which appeared in his 1980 and 1993 books. Thus, the authenticity of the tale is based on Brand’s memory and veracity. Brand was born in 1914, and he became a celebrated surgeon. He stated that he saw Mead’s lecture “early in my career”. Hence, there probably was a multi-decade delay before he wrote about it in 1980. Mead’s ideas about civilization may have changed over time.

Other accounts located by QI occurred after Brand’s testimony and matched his presentation. QI conjectures that these other accounts were not independent. Perhaps future researchers will uncover new evidence and independent accounts to clarify the situation.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of human femur (thigh bone) published in 1904. Image has been rotated and resized.

Acknowledgement: This article was inspired by a tweet from Luther Mckinnon who discussed the Mead anecdote and pointed to the “Mortification and Civilization” episode of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” podcast of bestselling author John Green. Green referenced the 1980 citation and was skeptical of the tale. Mckinnon also pointed to a blog post by Barbara Mahany on this topic. Thanks to each of them, and thanks to the volunteer Wikiquote editors who placed the tale in the “Disputed” section while listing many citations beginning with the 1980 cite. Also, thanks to Pieter Breitner who pointed to the remarks made by Mead in the 1968 citation.

Update History: On September 1, 2023 the 1968 citation was added to the article, and the conclusion was updated.

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