On June 8 2021, a Facebook page shared a long-circulating quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead about civilization’s earliest sign of appearing being a healed femur.
In a status update, the page wrote “Be Civilized!” and added the following quote in image format:
Text on the image read:
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.
In that format, the quote was not directly attributed to Mead herself. It was attributed to an individual named Ira Byock, who was paraphrasing Mead “years ago” — with no time, place, or context included in the anecdote.
Google Trends data for the search “Margaret Mead femur” demonstrated an interesting trend. Searches first registered in 2006, occurring again in 2012 and 2015 — but in early 2020, the searches became sustained:
Searches for the seven-day period ending on June 14 2021 indicated sustained interest, likely due to the viral Facebook post linked above. An undated Goodreads iteration of the quote attributed to Ira Byock quoting Mead had no engagement prior to April 2020.
In May 2020, a user submitted a thread to skeptics.stackexchange.com, titled “Did Margaret Mead say that a healed femur is the earliest sign of civilization?” The submitter relayed their interpretation of the quote’s sudden appearance in early/mid-2020:
A 1997 issue of the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, in an article I could not identify, contains the following story:
The noted, late anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was once asked, “What was the first sign of human civilization?” The inquiry came from someone who expected her to identify some artifact crafted by a primitive human being. Her reply was, “A healed human femur.” She went on to explain that it was the protection, feeding, and care by another individual that was unquestionably required to allow such a person to survive to the point of healing of such a fracture that signified that civilization could proceed.
This story is now being widely spread on social media as a heartwarming tale relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes Mead is claimed to have given a talk to an institution. Here is one example of such a meme. I found no indication that later renditions of this story provide more specific details about when or where this conversation happened.
No one in the thread was able to validate the quote as having been said by Mead at any point, but commenters managed to trace one iteration back to 1980. One user provided contextual information about the validity of the citation and its entry point, which was spotted in a 1980 memoir titled Fearfully and Wonderfully Made:
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made was co-authored by [Paul] Brand and a Christian popular writer named Philip Yancey … We have a delightful description from Brand’s biographer of how that collaboration worked.
Now, with Philip the writer, Paul was the learner. He learned that some of his paragraphs were too long. He had to find more anecdotes to lighten the flow of his argument. When he had none, Philip was not put off. “Come on, Dr. Brand! You can’t tell me that after thirty years as a surgeon you have no experiences to illustrate the point you are making! Or perhaps if you have no experiences, you should not make the point at all. It is only valid if it has been proved in real life.” So Paul had to go back and think and remember. He also drew [his wife] Margaret into the project because her memory was often better than his.
Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Ten Fingers for God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan, 1983), p. 283
It appears that in order to produce longer and more appealing books Yancey plied Brand for anecdotes, which were slow and difficult in coming. I have to wonder if this quotation is some sort of accident produced from their collaboration. However, I can draw no firm conclusion from this argument from silence. It remains entirely possible that Mead or some other anthropologist said this at some point.
- I [Paul Brand] 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.
- Paul Gilk questioned this anecdote in The Kingdom of God Is Green (2012): “…from the pulpit, a gentle and well-meaning mainstream Protestant pastor could tell a little Margaret Mead story about a healed femur, link that healed femur with the origins of civilization, and then be a little miffed when challenged (I think gently—perhaps not) on his use of concepts.”
- In the episode “Mortification and Civilization” of his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, author John Green questioned this quote, saying “…versions of this story show up in many different places — in sermons, and in self-help books and newspaper stories. I didn’t yet know whether Margaret Mead had really said this, but it was clear to me that a lot of people wanted her to have said it.”
Likewise, a search of Google Scholar returned 593 results — quite commonly pandemic-related papers about matters of compassion or justice. One from the year 2020 [PDF] mentioned the quotation in passing without citation, while another paper [PDF] simply attributed it to “the internet”:
Listening to many accounts such as this one I was reminded of a story doing the internet rounds about Margaret Mead being asked what the earliest evidence of civilisation might be. What really made us human? Mead replied that it was a thigh bone with a healed fracture that had been excavated from a 15,000 year old site. For an early human to have survived a broken femur, being taken care of – sheltered, protected, fed – through the months that were required for the bone to heal, was primordial and evidence of “civilisation”, of humanity.
Other factors suggested that the quote attributed to Mead and concerning a healed femur as the first sign of civilization circulated intermittently in 2006, 2012, and 2015, before striking a major chord during the events of 2020. Iterations of the quote spiked, often creating six-figure share counts. However, no efforts to trace the quote beyond Brand and Yancey — not Meade — had been successful. It was possible Meade made the comments during an unspecified lecture, but it is just as possible the anecdote was fabricated for the 1980 book referenced above.