Chinese scientists discover 3,000-year-old woman with amputated foot and speculate it was punishment

Scientists in Beijing have announced the discovery of a nearly 3,000-year-old skeleton of a young woman whose foot had been amputated. The finding, researchers say, is rare evidence of practice you, an ancient practice of having a person’s foot amputated as punishment for a crime. It is, they say, the earliest archaeological evidence for the practice.

The discovery, first reported by the South China tomorrow post, was excavated in a tomb at the Zhouyuan site in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Extensive osteoarchaeological research revealed that the woman lived five years after the amputation and was around 30-35 years old when she died. The biomedical analysis also revealed that there was no evidence of disease that could have led to the woman’s limb being amputated for medical reasons. The cut to the bone, the researchers said, was crudely executed and therefore does not appear to indicate medical amputation.

Li Nan, an archaeologist at Peking University in China, told Tom Metcalf about it live science that the team of archaeologists “eliminated other possibilities and agreed that punitive amputation is the best interpretation” of the remains. Although the woman appears to have been poor, she lived about five years after the amputation.

In the absence of evidence of illness, scientists have concluded that the woman was punished with the “Five Punishments” (wuxen) system, a series of punitive measures that lasted until the second century B.C. The Confucian text of the fourth century B.C Shanghai or the Book of Documents writes: “[The Miao] made the five punishments machines of oppression and called them the Laws. They slaughtered the innocent and were the first to indulge in excessive nose cutting, ear cutting, castration and branding.”

The Xia Dynasty is also said to have used the system and you especially to controlled enslaved people. During the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 BC), the five penalties were refined to include amputation of the nose [yi]face tattoo [mo]the removal of one or both legs [yue]castration [gōng]and the death penalty [da pi]. Ancient Chinese artworks also feature numerous depictions of people who have had their foot, feet, or leg amputated.

The practice has been used for a long time, but has also been controversial. Physical mutilation was not only something that had scarred and disabled people for life, it also had religious consequences. Confucian belief holds that a person’s body is preserved by their ancestors and parents and must be returned to them upon death. The mutilation made it impossible to fulfill that obligation, as Brian McKnight puts it, as a mutilated body indicates a mutilated mind.

“Violent physical mutilation in war was a way to dehumanize people, to demonstrate the dominance of one group over another.”

An essay by the 9th-century AD Tang poet Bai Juyi links the tyrannical abuse of mutilation to the fall of various dynasties. A translation of Bai’s essay by Norman Ho reads: “The Miao started abusing them; For this reason, heaven brought down suffering [on them] to punish her. the qin [third-century B.C.] The dynasty also used them violently and brutally… and the Qin fell.” Qin dynasty tombs from the Longgang site in Hubei contain the remains of those whose feet fell in the third century B.C. BC were amputated

The practice began in 167 BC. Abolished by Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty. A 2019 review of the practice by Norman Ho found that there were numerous offenses punishable by amputation centuries earlier. Li Nan told livescience that at that time up to 500 different offenses were punished with amputation. Up to this point, these punishments, as Dr. Jesse Chapman has argued, as advertisements for power and permanently associated victims with crime. Those who suffered the Five Penalties, Chapman writes, were put on display: those who were tattooed were sent to guard the gates. Those whose feet were amputated had to guard the gardens.

The use of mutilation (including amputation) as punishment for crimes is hardly unique to ancient China. For example, in Roman times, face tattoos were used to mark enslaved people attempting to emancipate (or, in Roman parlance, “run away”) themselves. Nasal amputation was used in ancient Iraq, Egypt, India, and Israel. It continued into the Byzantine and Medieval periods. In AD 695, Emperor Justinian II was usurped and disfigured by having his nose cut off. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) inflicted rhinotomies on those who had committed adultery; Pope Sixtus V punished muggers with the same treatment in the 16th century; and those who slandered the king in 17th-century England risked having their noses or ears amputated. Daniel Defoe, the author of the popular novel robinson crusoe, narrowly escaped this fate.

The most common context for disfiguring others is times of war. It wasn’t because people were trapped in the moment, it was a ritual act that intentionally demeaned people. like dr Tracy Lemos, a professor of theology at Huron University, has written in a number of important studies of ancient Israel, violent physical mutilation in war was a way to dehumanize people, to demonstrate the dominance of one group over another, and to subdue them who did dare to fight back.

The association of crime and the amputation of body parts is best known from the Hebrew Bible axiom “an eye for an eye,” but it is also present in the New Testament. In Mark 9, Jesus tells his followers that if any part of your body causes you to “stumble,” you should cut it off: “For it would be better to enter eternal life injured than to be thrown whole into Gehenna, in an Unquenchable Fire where the worm never dies.” Jesus may have viewed this practice of self-amputation as a therapeutic tool, but it created a legacy in which blinding and amputation were used as punishment for theft in medieval Europe.

Body mutilation is not just about the formal or official exercise of power. The lynching of black and Mexican men in the American South regularly involved castration, eye removal, and amputation of hands and feet. Even today, violent physical alteration can be a means of violently and illegally asserting power and dominance; As a CNN report revealed in 2017, young women who are trafficked and forced into sex work in the US are regularly branded or tattooed.

In 1919, in his short story In der Penal Colony, Franz Kafka told the story of a traveler who witnessed the execution of a convict. The convict had insulted his superior by falling asleep on duty and not getting up and greeting on the hour. His execution was carried out by a machine that wrote the nature of the crime on the man’s body over the course of 12 hours. (The machine appears to have been the inspiration for Dolores Umbridge’s Black Quill in Harry Potter.) The story makes explicit, notes Chapman, what is implicit in the historical practices of body mutilation: it inscribes the victim’s body in a culturally readable way. You can read their punishment, corresponding crimes, and moral flaws on their bodies. Mutilation makes a person less than human. But from our point of view, these types of inscriptions only work to condemn the enroller, not the condemned. Chinese scientists discover 3,000-year-old woman with amputated foot and speculate it was punishment


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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