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Surviving punishment by body reduction in a hierarchical society: A bioarcheological study of two punitive amputation cases in Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771–256 BCE) with references to the penal and medical systems of ancient China

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Abstract

Limb amputation is a surgical procedure used during a medical operation or to manage trauma. Besides its therapeutic potential, amputation is a cruel punishment, with punitive body reduction practiced in ancient societies and even some modern ones. Victims of punitive amputation would face impaired locomotion and public shame. In this study, two individuals with signs of lower limb amputation were excavated from the Xiagantang site in Sanmengxia, Henan Province, China. The two skeletons were studied using bioarcheological approaches to determine consequences of amputation, identify possible patient care, and reconstruct circumstances of the amputation events. M693 had a lower limb amputation on the left side, while M432 was amputated on the right. Macroscopic observations and image analyses indicated healing and functional adaptations. Grave goods and the isotopic analysis suggested that the amputees had relatively high socioeconomic status. It is postulated that M693 and M432 had punitive amputation for felonies; this bioarchaeological evidence corroborated with historic written records of law and punishment from the penal system of the Zhou Dynasty. Post-execution, the individuals were allowed to recover, and they continued to live for years. These cases enrich our understanding of the physical consequences of lower limb amputation and illuminate the social context of amputation during ancient times.

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Research data and images will be available in public domain after the completion and publication of the findings. Entities include Zhengzhou University School of History and Texas A&M University.

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Acknowledgements

Ms. Meghann Holt is thanked for editing the English. We are also grateful to Dr. Li Sun for help and support of various kinds. The editor and reviewers are thanked for their constructive comments.

Funding

Y.Z. was supported by a Project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization (2020YFC1521607), by Zhengzhou University through the "Research on the roots of Chinese civilization" grant (XKZDJC202006), and by the Subproject of the Major Project of the National Social Science Fund of China (Grant No. 19ZDA227). Q.W. was supported by a T3 grant from Texas A&M University.

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Y.Z. contributed to conception, design, data acquisition, analysis, interpretation, write and critically revised the manuscript. Y.L. contributed to data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation, and drafted the manuscript. and F.Y. contributed to data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation. Q.W. contributed to conception, design, data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation, drafted and critically revised the manuscript. All authors gave final approval and agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

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Correspondence to Qian Wang.

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Appendix

Appendix

Table 5 M693 preserved bones inventory
Table 6 M432 preserved bones inventory
Table 7 M693 Measurements. Unit: mm
Table 8 M432 Measurements Unit: mm
Table 9 Results of stable isotopic analysis of people of different social classes in Eastern Zhou Dynasty
Table 10 Description of measurements in Table 3 and Appendix Tables

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Zhou, Y., Liu, Y., Yan, F. et al. Surviving punishment by body reduction in a hierarchical society: A bioarcheological study of two punitive amputation cases in Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771–256 BCE) with references to the penal and medical systems of ancient China. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 16, 55 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-024-01961-2

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