Was This Woman’s Foot Cut Off as Punishment 3,000 Years Ago?

·6 min read
Liu Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images
Liu Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images

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

The discovery, first reported by the South China Morning Post, was unearthed in a tomb at Zhouyuan site in Shaanxi province, northwest China. Extensive osteoarcheological examination estimated that the woman lived five years after the amputation and was about 30-35 years old when she died. Biomedical analysis further revealed that there was no evidence of disease that might have caused the woman’s limb to have been amputated on medical grounds. The cut to the bone, said the researchers, was roughly made and, thus, does not seem suggestive of medical amputation.

Li Nan, an archaeologist at Peking University in China, told Tom Metcalf of Live Science that the team of archeologists eliminated “other possibilities and agreed that punitive amputation is the best interpretation” of the remains. Though the woman seems to have been poor, she lived for about five years after the amputation.

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In the absence of evidence for disease, scientists have concluded that the woman was punished under the “Five Punishments” (wuxing) system, a set of punitive measures that were in place until the second century B.C. According to legend, the five punishments were originally created by the Miao tribes after Chiyou, one of the three legendary founders of China, inaugurated a period of chaos. The fourth century B.C. Confucian text Shangshu or the Book of Documents writes, “[The Miao] made the five punishments engines of oppression, calling them the laws. They slaughtered the innocent and were the first also to go to excess in cutting off the nose, cutting off the ears, castration, and branding.”

The Xia dynasty also allegedly used the system, and yue in particular, to controlled enslaved people. During the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 B.C.) the Five Punishments were refined to include amputation of the nose [yi], facial tattooing [mo], the removal of one or both legs [yue], castration [gōng], and the death penalty [da pi]. Ancient Chinese artwork also shows numerous depictions of people whose foot, feet, or leg had been amputated.

While the practice was implemented for a lengthy period of time, it was also controversial. Not only was bodily mutilation something that scarred and disabled people for life, but it also had religious consequences. Confucian beliefs stated that a person’s body is received from their ancestors and parents and must be returned to them at death. Mutilation made this obligation impossible to fulfill, as Brian McKnight puts it, since a mutilated body was indicative of a mutilated spirit.

A ninth-century A.D. essay by Tang poet Bai Juyi connects the tyrannical abuse of mutilation to the downfall of various dynasties. A translation of Bai’s essay by Norman Ho reads: “the Miao people started to abuse them; because of this, heaven brought down suffering [on them] to punish them. The Qin [third-century B.C.] Dynasty also violently and brutally used them…and the Qin fell.” Qin dynasty tombs from Longgang site in Hubei contain the remains of those whose feet were amputated in the third century B.C.

The practice was abolished by Emperor Wen, of the Han dynasty, in 167 B.C. A 2019 review of the practice by Norman Ho revealed that centuries earlier there were numerous offenses that were punishable by amputation. Li Nan told Livescience that at the time as many as 500 different offenses were punishable with amputation. Up until that point, as Dr. Jesse Chapman has argued, these punishments served as advertisements of power and permanently associated victims with criminality. Those who suffered under the Five Punishments, writes Chapman, were placed 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 bodily mutilation (including amputation) as a punishment for crimes is hardly unique to ancient China. In the Roman period, for example, facial tattoos were used to mark enslaved people who tried to self-emancipate (or in Roman terms “run away”). Nasal amputation was employed in ancient Iraq, Egypt, India, and Israel. It continued in the Byzantine and Medieval periods. In 695 A.D. Emperor Justinian II was usurped and disfigured by having his nose sliced off. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) inflicted rhinotomies upon those who committed adultery; Pope Sixtus V punished highway bandits with the same treatment in the 16th century; and those who spread libel about the King in 17th-century England risked having their nose or ears amputated. Daniel Defoe, the author of the beloved novel Robinson Crusoe, narrowly escaped this very fate.

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The most common context for disfiguring others is wartime. This wasn’t because people got caught up in the moment, it was a ritualistic act that deliberately degraded people. As Dr. Tracy Lemos, a professor of theology at Huron University, has written in a series of important studies on ancient Israel, forcible bodily mutilation in war was a way of dehumanizing people, of displaying one group’s dominance over another, and subordinating those who dare to resist.

The association of criminality and the amputation of body parts is most well-known from the Hebrew Bible axiom “an eye for an eye” but it is present in the New Testament as well. In Mark 9 Jesus tells his followers that if a part of your body causes you to “stumble,” then you should cut it off: “For it would be better to enter eternal life impaired than to be thrown intact into Gehenna, into an unquenchable fire where the worm never dies.” Jesus may well have seen this practice of auto-amputation as therapeutic, but it created a legacy in which blinding and amputation were used as punishment for theft in medieval Europe.

Bodily mutilation is not only about the formal or official exercise of power. The lynching of Black and Mexican men in the American South regularly involved castration, ocular excision, and the amputation of hands and feet. Even today, forcible bodily modification 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 U.S. are regularly branded or tattooed.

In his 1919 short story “In the Penal Colony,” Franz Kafka told the story of a traveler who witnessed the execution of a condemned man. The condemned had insulted his superior officer by falling asleep on duty and failing to stand and salute on the hour. His execution was administered by a machine that inscribed the nature of the crime on the man’s body over the course of 12 hours. (The machine seems to have been the inspiration for Dolores Umbridge’s Black Quill in Harry Potter.) The story makes explicit, Chapman notes, what is implicit in the historical practices of bodily mutilation: it inscribes the body of the victim in a culturally legible way. You can read their punishment, corresponding crimes, and moral failings from their bodies. Mutilation renders a person less than human. But, from our vantage point, these kinds of inscriptions work only to damn the inscriber, not the condemned.

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