“What is the Earliest Sign of Civilization?” – attributed to Margaret Mead

What is the Earliest Sign of Civilization?

Dr. Paul Brand recalled attending a lecture given by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent much of her life studying primitive cultures. She asked her audience a series of questions: “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 everyone 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 or her behalf, brought them food, and served them at personal sacrifice. Savage societies could not afford such pity.

The above citation of Margaret Mead is in dispute. It first appeared in Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (1980) by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. In the book, Brand frames the anecdote as occurring at a lecture that he attended years before. Though its veracity cannot be confirmed, I feel it’s worth sharing because the sentiment expressed is true to who Mead was as an individual, and the idea itself is worthy of propagation.


Margaret Mead, 1901-1978


Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash

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