Many years ago, a student asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about hooks, clay pots or whetstones. But she didn't. Mead said that to her knowledge the earliest sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a human femur (thigh bone) that had healed from a break, a bone found in an archeological site 15,000 years old.
Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can't run from danger, go to the river to drink, or hunt for food. Seriously injured animals or humans become fresh meat for predators. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that healed is evidence that someone cared for the injured individual, treated the wound, took the person to safety, and provided care until they recovered. Helping someone through difficulty – someone in need - is where civilization begins, said Mead.
Photo courtesty of Mark Roggen
A lovely story and true (told by Ira Byock in his 2012 book on palliative medicine). And an appropriate story for the holiday season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa – they’re all about sharing, about giving to others. A theme even more fitting in these days scourged by the Covid virus, a time in which we are all called on to think of the other by wearing masks and social distancing. A time for helping others where we can. A time for volunteering service of one kind or another.
Maybe Mead’s idea was right on target for now: maybe the work done to deal with these broken times will be a healing, a new beginning, a turn to a more civil, more courteous, even more caring civilization. Let’s all hope so.
And let’s all stay safe,
and stay 6’ apart.