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Researcher Li Nan, from Peking University, pictured with her team, holding the foot amputation evidence that was subjected to biomedical analysis. Source: South China Morning Post

Punishment: 3000-year-old Chinese Foot Amputation May Be Oldest Ever!

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Researchers in China believe a skeleton found in a tomb in the northwest of the country is the earliest known example of foot amputation as punishment for a crime, reports the South China Morning Post .

The foot amputation was carried out as a punishment and not for medical reasons, the researchers maintain, since a biomedical examination failed to identify any cause for the amputation. The victim lived for at least five years after the amputation. The team of researchers from Peking University, led by postdoctoral researcher Li Nan, has published a paper in Acta Anthropologica Sinica on the findings of their study.

The Chinese “Five Punishments” included boiling a criminal to death and foot amputation. (G41rn8 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Chinese “Five Punishments” included boiling a criminal to death and foot amputation. (G41rn8 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Foot Amputation: One of the Chinese “Five Punishments”

Criminals in ancient China were severely punished. These punishments were graded in severity from tattooing to foot amputation and execution, depending upon the gravity of the crime. Wuxing, the “Five Punishments” or “Five Penalties” system, was in place for at least a thousand years till about 200 BC.

Although the penalties varied over time, for the most part they consisted of mo ( tattooing), yi (cutting off the nose), yue (cutting off a foot), gong (castration) and dapi (execution), according to ChinaKnowledge.de. For each of these forms of corporal punishment , the Luxing law code, created by Marquis Fu, listed a hundred crimes where it was applicable.

The system is documented in historical accounts and illustrations. For instance, in the earliest Chinese written records, the Shang dynasty’s (circa 1600-1050 BC) bone inscriptions seem to show some images of a foot being cut off with a saw, which is the earliest form of the character for yue (foot amputation).

Western Zhou (from around 1046 to 771 BC) bronze vessels have some engravings showing people with one or both legs missing acting as gatekeepers. In the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), foot amputation became such a common form of punishment that demand and prices for special shoes shot up.

These leg bones found in a 3,000-year-old grave in China show evidence of foot amputation as punishment according to the latest research. (South China Morning Post)

These leg bones found in a 3,000-year-old grave in China show evidence of foot amputation as punishment according to the latest research. ( South China Morning Post )

The First Case of Punitive Foot Amputation in China

The skeleton of the woman who is thought to be the earliest known punitive foot amputation case was found in a tomb at a cemetery at the site of Zhouyan near Baoji in China’s northwestern province of Shaanxi. Zhouyan is where the Zhou civilization arose. The vast number of bronze vessels found at the site have earned it the moniker of “hometown of bronzes.” Oracle bones and tombs have also been discovered at the site.

Although she was discovered in 1999, the skeleton didn’t evoke much interest or study at the time. Archaeologists were more interested in uncovering artifacts at the site, of which there were plenty.

However, spurred by recent developments in science and technology, Li Nan and her colleagues at Peking University decided to make a detailed study of the woman’s skeletal remains.

“People only regarded this human bone as an incomplete bone before, but when I had a certain knowledge reserve, I thought at first sight that it might be a case of amputation. I excitedly went to the hospital and made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor. When I took out the tibial remains, the doctor was really shocked, ” Li said according to the South China Morning Post article .

An X-ray showed the remains to be of a 30-35-year-old woman who had her right foot cut off. In the gradation of penalties, more serious crimes invited a right foot amputation while a left foot one was prescribed for somewhat less serious crimes. So, the woman evidently was accused of a crime regarded as fairly grave. “There is a very important provision of the yue penalty: the left foot will be amputated for light offenders, while the right foot will be cut-off for heavy offenders. It seems that the tomb owner committed a felony,” Li added.

Amputations for medical reasons such as diabetes, cancer and leprosy were also known in ancient China. However, the bone density and structure of the other parts of the skeleton indicated that the woman wasn’t prey to any such diseases. Moreover, the amputation was an inexpert one that subsequently caused deformities to her tibia and fibula. A surgical amputation, in contrast, would have likely been a cleaner operation.

Many who had their limbs inexpertly hacked off as punishment for crimes, died as a result. Others who lived, led miserable lives, and could rarely find any employment other than as gatekeepers to animal and bird enclosures. This was another humiliation heaped on them as they were deemed fit only to live with animals.

The woman amputee, however, survived the amputation and lived for another five years at least. The researchers surmise that this may have been because she wasn’t abandoned by her family and received better care.

Earlier remains of amputees belonging to the Shang Dynasty period (1766-1122 BC) have been found but these were likely victims of ritual sacrifice, banned by the Zhou dynasty.

“Combining the biomedical analysis of the tomb occupier and the yue amputees images engraved on bronze vessels unearthed from nearby tombs, it can be basically determined that this is an example of the yue penalty and is the earliest known example,” Li is quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post article. Certainly, this is the first well-studied example of a punitive foot amputation from ancient China and provides new insights into the penal system and social conditions in China 3,000 years ago.

Top image: Researcher Li Nan, from Peking University, pictured with her team, holding the foot amputation evidence that was subjected to biomedical analysis. Source: South China Morning Post

By Sahir Pandey

References

ChinaKnowledge.de. n.d. Wuxing 五刑, the Five Punishments . Available at: http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Terms/wuxing-penal.html.

Lei Huarui, 2022. Researchers say they have found skeleton of ancient Chinese criminal who had her foot cut off almost 3,000 years ago . Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3176176/researchers-say-they-have-found-skeleton-ancient-chinese.

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