Off with her foot!

Ancient Chinese woman had foot removed, probably as brutal punishment.

A rare discovery has come from a tomb at the Zhouyuan site in north-western China, excavated in 1999: a woman with an amputated foot. She was about 30 to 35 years old, but her foot was amputated some five years earlier.


Apparently, she was poor although in good health, for there were only a few beads in her grave. There were no traces of any medical condition on her bones, so the researchers concluded that roughly carried out amputation was punitive. They believe she was punished under a set of disciplinary measures originally introduced as oppressive deterrents by Xia rulers after 1000 BC.


Offenders who committed serious crimes were subjected to several measures, depending on their offence. Among them were yi, removal of the nose, and, for serious offenders, yue, amputation of one or both feet. Da pi was a death sentence, carried out by beheading, being boiled alive, or torn apart by horses. These punishments were abolished by Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty in 167 BC and replaced with fines, floggings, hard labour, exile, or death.


No one, of course, knows what crime the amputee committed, for there were numerous offences that led to amputation. This is the first example of a brutal, crude amputation to come from a Chinese site, though it is likely that others exist, but have not been identified by scientific examination.


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Image: The rough endings on the bones of the lower right leg suggest the amputation was inflicted as a punishment and was not the result of an accident or disease.

Credit: Li Nan et al/Acta Anthropologica Sinica