Is the story of Margaret Mead and the femur true? The earliest reference we could find was in the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Dr Paul W. Brand and Philip Yancey, that was published in 1980. The exact story is found on page 82 as told by Dr Brand:
One morning, working alone in the attic, I came across some boxes of skeletons that had been dug up from a monastery. I was soon to be reminded of a lecture given by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent much of her life studying primitive culture. She asked the question, What is the earliest sign of civilization?” A clay pot? Iron? Tool? Agriculture? No, she claimed. To her, evidence of the earliest true civilization was a healed femur, a leg bone, which she held up before us in the lecture hall. She explained that such healings were never found in the remains of competitive savage societies, There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But the healed femur showed that someone must have cared for the injured person – hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him at personal sacrifice. Savage societies could not afford such pity. I found similar evidence of healing in the bones from the churchyard.
As far as we can tell, this is the first version of the story. As with all good stories it has changed and adapted with the times – people no longer use degrading terms such as savages or primitive to describe societies. Dr Brand died in 2003 so we are unlikely to truly know if it in fact occurred or if Dr Brand made the story up.
We prefer to view it as a parable rather than a historical story. And like all parables, the point is not to be a non-fictional story but to convey a message that is worth listening to.