Fact Check

Did Anthropologist Margaret Mead Say the 'First Sign of Civilization' Is a Healed Femur?

The dubious anecdote has proliferated on the internet and in books for decades.

Published July 28, 2023

 (Edward Lynch/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Edward Lynch/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
Anthropologist Margaret Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture is a femur that had been broken and then healed. She theorized that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die because you are unable to run from danger, hunt, and survive. But a healed thigh bone is a sign that someone has taken time to care for the injured.
Context

A number of secondhand sources recall Mead making this statement in response to a student’s question or as part of a lecture. But we were unable to find evidence to independently verify the anecdote, such as a written statement or audio recording by Mead. One authentic quote by her, however, gave a different explanation of what she believed to be a sign of a civilization.

For several years, a anecdote about Margaret Mead has made the rounds on the internet, finding its way onto Forbes and even The Economist. Mead, a famed anthropologist who died in 1978, allegedly said she considered a femur that had been broken and healed as the first sign of civilization because it indicated that someone took time to care for the injured, rather than letting the individual die.

But whether she actually made the statement remains an unanswered question.

Mead was known for her contributions to the field of sexual theory, particularly through the publication of her first book "Coming of Age in Samoa" in 1928. She was highly regarded as an expert on the sociocultural life of indigenous communities in the South Pacific. Through her writing and lecturing, she often advocated for the relaxation of traditional gender and sexual conventions.

A popular meme attributed the anecdote about Mead and healed femurs to physician Ira Byock, emeritus professor of medicine and community & family medicine at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, and a 2013 post on the Yale Divinity School website that referenced him. Those sources told the story like this:

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.

We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.

Ira Byock

The authenticity of the story aside, the attribution to Byock was correct. Byock claimed Mead made the statement in his 2012 book, "The Best Care Possible: A Physician's Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life." 

Other sources repeated the anecdote seemingly as fact without attribution to Byock or anyone else. In June 2023, for example, The Economist published an explainer on geopolitical terms, called "The A to Z of international relations." Under the entry on "Civilisation," the outlet wrote:

Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, said the earliest sign of civilisation was an ancient skeleton with a broken and healed femur; only thanks to the care of a civilised society, she said, would the victim not have been left to die. Civilisations also provide material for disputes and boasting in international relations. 

However, we were unable to find direct evidence to independently verify the anecdote, such as a written statement or audio recording by Mead. 

Quote Investigator, a site that looks into the sources of quotes popular on the internet, stated the earliest known example of the story appeared in the 1980 book, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body," by Dr. Paul Brand and co-written by Philip Yancey. Brand recalled:

One morning, working alone in the attic, I came across some boxes of skeletons that had been dug up from a monastery. I was soon to be reminded of a lecture given by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent much of her life studying primitive cultures. She asked the question, "What is the earliest sign of civilization?" A clay pot? Iron? Tools? Agriculture? No, she claimed. 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. Savage societies could not afford such pity. I found similar evidence of healing in the bones from the churchyard.

Mead died in 1978, two years before the release of Brand's book, so she was never in a position to authenticate Brand's claim herself.

Per Quote Investigator, Brand shared more details about the alleged incident in his 1993 book, "Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants" : 

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."

Varying forms of the account then proliferated in newspapers, speeches and on the internet

As of this writing, the alleged anecdote appeared in the "Disputed" section of Mead's Wikiquote page. According to the entry, Mead herself gave a different explanation to the question of what counted as a sign of civilization, that was published in 1968, titled "Talks With Social Scientists."

We tracked down a transcription of that interview, which showed, in response to the question, "When does a culture become a civilization?" Mead said (emphasis, ours): 

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. Civilization, in other words, is not simply a word of approval, as one would say "he is uncivilized," but it is technical description of a particular kind of social system that makes a particular kind of culture possible. 

The story has been questioned and disputed by numerous people since at least 2012. Anthropologist and physician Gideon Lasco wrote in Sapiens — an anthropology magazine — described the purported anecdote about Mead and healed femurs as "vague and inaccurate." He wrote:

Some examples from the past seem to be in line with the anecdote, pointing to elaborate human efforts to care for the injured. As SAPIENS columnist Stephen Nash wrote of an ancient Puebloan woman who suffered a fall and received medical care some 800 years ago: "Love and the often inexorable will-to-live can push the human body to do remarkable things, even in the absence of modern painkillers." But fractured bones found in the archaeological record can sometimes point to a more pernicious side of humanity—such as the presence of interpersonal violence among ancient humans.

Aside from these fact-checking questions, I also found myself questioning the anthropocentrism implicit in the anecdote. After all, is "medicine," broadly construed, unique to humans? Is healing and helping others exclusive to Homo sapiens?

Research by biological anthropologists and others shows there are actually signs of healed bones all over the animal kingdom. For instance, while some studies suggest that healed bones are rare for adult primates, they are not unprecedented or particularly uncommon for juveniles.

More compellingly, recent evidence points to the fact that medical behavior once ascribed to humans may be found in other species. Chimpanzees, for example, have been observed treating the wounds of other community members by applying insects; many other species, from elephants to wolves, have been found to practice some form of self-medication.

He added that the very concept of "civilization" or a "civilized society" is problematic and should be interrogated, along with the idea that our species should be considered "special." He argued the idea of civilization was often used by colonizers to subjugate "primitive" societies.

Given that the true origin of the purported story remained unknown and we have no evidence to independently verify its authenticity, we have rated this claim "Unproven."

Sources

"A 15,000 Year Old Bone and the Fall 2013 Issue of Reflections." Yale Divinity School. https://divinity.yale.edu/news/15000-year-old-bone-and-fall-2013-issue-reflections. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"A Healed Femur Is the Earliest Sign of True Civilization." Quote Investigator®. 25 July 2021, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/07/25/femur/. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"A Quote by Ira Byock." https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/10204722-a-student-once-asked-anthropologist-margaret-mead-what-is-the. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Blumenfeld, Remy. "How A 15,000-Year-Old Human Bone Could Help You Through The Coronacrisis." Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/remyblumenfeld/2020/03/21/how-a-15000-year-old-human-bone-could-help-you-through-the--coronavirus/. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Brand, Paul, and Philip Yancey. The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do About It. Zondervan, 2020. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Byock, Ira. "The Best Care Possible: A Physician's Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life." Penguin, 2012. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Lasco, Gideon. "Did Margaret Mead Think a Healed Femur Was the Earliest Sign of Civilization?" SAPIENS, 16 June 2022, https://www.sapiens.org/culture/margaret-mead-femur/. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Margaret Mead | Biography, Contributions, Theory, Books, & Facts." Britannica. 9 June 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Mead. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Margaret Mead." HISTORY, 6 Feb. 2023, https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/margaret-mead. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Margaret Mead Is Dead of Cancer at 76." The New York Times, Nov. 16, 1978.  https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1216.html. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Margaret Mead on What Is a Culture? What Is a Civilization?" Talks with Social Scientists, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, https://www.berghahnbooks.com/downloads/chapters/MeadStudying_Ch02.pdf. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Margaret Mead." Wikiquote. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Mead. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"Regina Sun 19 Apr 1998, Page 19." Newspapers.Com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/497366542/. Accessed 28 July 2023.

"The A to Z of International Relations." The Economist, June 2023, https://www.economist.com/international-relations-a-to-z. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Yancey, Philip, and Paul Brand. "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made." Zondervan, 2010. Accessed 28 July 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.