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.

enter image description here

Did Mead, or any anthropologist, say this?

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    I'm thinking I heard this ca 1980. May 3, 2020 at 16:05
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    This seems more solid, not sure if it’s enough for an answer: 1997 book
    – Laurel
    May 3, 2020 at 16:06
  • @Laurel: Are you able to see what's on page 274, and whether it gives an indication of where and when Mead allegedly said this? May 3, 2020 at 21:07
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    @NateEldredge Well I could when I first looked it up. Basically it says that the author (idk which one) went to a talk or something of hers and she said that quote. No timeframe was given, although obviously it would have been at least 20 years earlier.
    – Laurel
    May 3, 2020 at 21:14
  • 1
    Animals being incapable of looking after their family seems unlikely, kind of like saying no fish are capable of climbing trees
    – Golden Cuy
    May 5, 2020 at 4:37

1 Answer 1


(Posting this as a self-answer because it's too large for a comment, but not accepting it because it's conjecture)

Daniel R Hicks commented that he heard this "around 1980." Indeed, it appears that the earliest print citation is from precisely the year 1980, in the surgeon Paul Brand's Christian memoir Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan). This screenshot is from page 68. I mainly wanted to post this here to award Daniel Hicks a point for being spot-on.

enter image description here

This anecdote was reprinted in Brand's book Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants (1993) and probably spread widely from there. The major issue with this story is that Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist, not a physical anthropologist, and no one else has attested to this story.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made was co-authored by Brand and a Christian popular writer named Philip Yancey. Having skimmed several of his books it appears to me that Yancey's favorite mode of writing is the anecdote. Brand, who was a revered doctor in his time responsible for a paradigm shift in the treatment of leprosy, wrote his own monograph on pain in 1972 but it was only 16 pages long. In various books, Yancey writes that he found a copy of that monograph in a warehouse and decided to reach out to Brand for collaboration. 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.

  • Great answer-best out there. On the phenomena of quotes from unpublished/unverified lectures, speeches or other utterances: I think there are a lot out there, but which are generally accepted as fact, no? Which raises the question: why does this particular quote seem to garner so much energy towards the fact-finding of its source (not in 'itself' a bad thing - rather just wondering about the disproportion)? I think it speaks to some discomfort on the elegance of the statement, which challenges notions fundamental to neoliberal conservative-dominant societies in much of the world. Jun 14, 2021 at 7:30
  • @Abdul-KareemAbdul-Rahman Why do you think it gets an especially large amount of fact checking? One could argue it fits just fine with the secular, universal healthcare West, but less so with religious communities expecting religion to be the first sign of civilization.
    – prosfilaes
    Aug 6, 2023 at 10:31
  • Personally I put effort into both the question and the answer because it's an interesting observation but I doubt it was said by Margaret Mead.
    – Avery
    Aug 6, 2023 at 13:54
  • @DJClayworth can you elaborate?
    – Avery
    Aug 10, 2023 at 12:34

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