That Margaret Mead quote

I frequently get emails from family friends with questions about archaeology. Because I’m unemployed, they get more than they bargained for, and I decided to turn today’s query into this post.

Leon H wrote in with a particular quote that I decided to comment on.

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.

I replied:

It’s interesting the quotes that are attributed to Margaret Mead – another is “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (And other variants of this sentiment with differing word choices.)

Both are things she could have said, given her personality, but neither is fully attributed – the first instance of the story above is in Dr. Ira Byock’s 2012 book on palliative care, and the above quote only attributed to her four years after her death by the author of a fairly hippie-ish book on paths to world peace.
This quote has been going around Facebook since mid-March, probably encouraged by this Twitter threadthis FB post, and this article in Forbes, none of which are by archaeologists/anthropologists.
The quote has a bit of “truthiness” to it. The general idea of the quote – other versions have her saying “in the law of the jungle, if you can’t hunt, you die” – is that all animals but humans live in a tooth-and-claw Darwinian world where literally only the fit survive. This is not so. Animals are adapted to living within their environment, and the most fit to their environment survive. Femoral fractures in wild animals can be survivable if they happen to juveniles who heal fully in few weeks (and are taken care of as a matter of course, at least in primates). A review of such fractures in primates was conducted by Bulstrode et al (1986). The authors examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections, finding the healed fracture rate higher than expected.
Another reason we see few femoral breaks in wild animals is that they probably happen rarely. Animals suited to their environment don’t tend to be risky, and those femoral fractures we see are often from falls. Animals don’t tend to hang around other animals that will hurt them, unlike humans who spend time with cows (a frequent source of injury in agricultural societies). Animals also don’t go looking for danger, no matter what the Lion King suggests. Whereas a human will climb a tree to get a beehive for honey and risk a great fall, other land mammals tend to leave that alone. Humans also have high buildings we can fall out of and cars to injure ourselves in and around. Humans have a much wider range of places we’ve not fully adapted to, and thus a higher rate of injury.
Humans also have a thing called war where we purposefully try to injury one another. I wonder if the “15000 years ago” part of the quote refers to Jebel Sahaba, the oldest evidence of warfare, from Sudan. (It’s been re-dated to 13,000 years ago, but was believed to be 15kya when excavated in 1968.) I actually worked on re-analysis of skeletons from this site in 2011. The people buried there show evidence of repeated healed injury, as if they were attacked and then left in peace, then attacked again. The injuries were slices into the bone, injuries from pointed stone tools and arrows, some of which remained embedded in the bones.
Another key point about the quote is that only humans have the tools to actually fix a broken limb. (I mean, only humans have the tools, period. We invented tools.*) If a wild animal has a broken limb, it can heal, but it will heal improperly. The bones keep the muscles nice and stretched out, and if the bone is broken enough that the entire shaft is snapped, the muscles will contract and pull the bone overlapping itself, like a stretched rubber band returning to its original position. With immobilisation, care, and the hope that infection doesn’t follow (as antibiotics didn’t exist until penicillin in 1928), the bone can heal in that position.
An example of this is the photo below – the skeleton of an individual I excavated at site H29 in Sudan in 2012. In the first photo, at the uppermost end of the striped stick, is a bulbous enlargement, which is actually the two overlapped broken ends of the femur. (All the sharp breaks are post-mortem and unrelated to the injury.) This person did not receive fracture reduction (or if they did, it was not effective), so the bone healed overlapped. This resulted in the right leg becoming about 6 centimeters shorter than the left. Interestingly, the feet were at a slightly higher elevation so I excavated them first, and found that the right foot was in an extremely flexed position, as if they’d been walking on their toes. You can see this on the far left of the second photo. When I excavated the body and legs, it became clear – the bone had healed, and this person was walking around quite a bit for many years afterward, so much so that their foot became permanently flexed. Bonesetting is an ancient practice, still common in some regions (1) (2), and I wonder if this community, active around 3000 years ago, was too small or too remote to have access to a bonesetter.
H29(A) gr405,sk476_1127

A broken femur from site H29A. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.

H29(A) gr405,sk476_1122

The same skeleton from H29A. The flexed foot is on the far left of the image. The skull has already been removed, but the rest of the skeleton is intact; you can also see a stone palette at the top of the image and a decorative clothespin between the top arm and the ribs. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.

I often use this skeleton to discuss care in the ancient world. We tend to think of people before us as cruel and barbaric, a fallacy I continue to address in my teaching. But they’re only as cruel as people today, and also as compassionate. There’s a whole field exploring archaeology of disability, including the social treatment of people with injuries and conditions that affected their mobility.
If anyone can find a reputable source for the Margaret Mead quote, please do reach out!
If you’d like to hear more, please tune in to my lecture tomorrow night! (Weds at 2000 GMT). I might include some of this, as I’ve enjoyed writing it down 🙂

*Some biologists argue that birds and chimpanzees also use tools, but that’s really beside the point here.

12 thoughts on “That Margaret Mead quote

  1. I also feel mystified by the fact of this quote ignoring tens (or hundreds) of thousands of years of humanity pre-civilzition in which people very much helped each other — while, on the other hand, civilization is the beginning of people helping things and institutions at the expense of each other. It just doesn’t sound like something an anthropologist like Margaret Mead would say.


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  7. The referenced quote just appeared in a holiday email and I began exploring the origin which brought me to this page. I then viewed additional reflections on its origin and would appreciate your thoughts: I am fascinated by your discussion as it is very relevant to work I am doing in regard to how society defines and responds to disability. I would like to quote you instead or in addition. to Margaret Mead, if appropriate. I very much appreciate your guidance.
    With Gratitude,



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