Tag Archives: Margaret Mead

Signs of Civilization

Margaret Mead identified a broken femur that has healed as the first sign of civilization in a culture. It’s something that could only happen when people are willing and able to take care of other people who are sick or injured and who will need a lot of time to recover. 

In a similar vein, I saw something recently where the domestication of dogs was inferred from the bones of a dog with arthritis.

Cooperation and communication are key to humans thriving. Not just what we do with other humans, but also our relationships with dogs, cats, snakes, horses, cattle, and everyone else we’ve lived alongside. 

I was taught as a young human that the basis of civilization is language, and most especially a written language. With no recognition that complex human societies have and do exist without developing the written word. For the last few hundred years, industrialised humans have been inclined to measure the civilization of other humans in terms of how industrialised they are. 

The way we think about what civilization means informs how we relate to each other. It has been informed by historical attitudes to what’s valuable, and has shaped colonialism as well. We measure civilization in so far as it looks like us, and we devalue complex, effective ways of being in the world that aren’t like the materialistic, destructive culture that has come out of Europe.

It’s also worth noting that if caring for your sick is the key measure of a civilization, the US doesn’t score terribly well on that and the UK is pushing hard to relinquish its claim to civilization. If we considered care to be the primary measure of civilization, we’d have to be less tolerant of poverty, hunger, homelessness and other forms of deprivation. Perhaps we could aspire to become civilized.