A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?” The student expected her to say a clay pot, a grinding stone, or maybe a weapon.
Margaret Mead thought for a moment, then she said, “A healed femur.”
A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. A healed femur shows that someone cared for the injured person, did their hunting and gathering, stayed with them, and offered physical protection and human companionship until the injury could mend.
Mead explained that where the law of the jungle—the survival of the fittest—rules, no femurs healed femurs are found. The first sign of civilization is compassion, seen in a healed femur.
By the same token, the first sign of an advanced civilization is not reading and writing, computer technology, robotics, nuclear weapons, music, or a high level of civil organization. Rather, the first and last sign of civilization is compassion.
How well we care for those who are wounded or injured, in body or soul; how well we rally around a person in their time of need, offering healing and comfort and protection and companionship until they are able to rise up and walk again, are the true signs of civilization.
Learning to live a life of compassion towards the weak, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged is the most important part of our civilization’s ‘coming of age’.