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New Study Shows How Ancient Chinese Used To Punish People

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There is evidence that a Chinese woman had her foot chopped off about 3,000 years ago, most likely as a punishment for a criminal act, according to recent research on the bones of the woman’s lower leg. Yue, an ancient Chinese punishment, has only been discovered a handful of times by archaeologists.

Several factors point to the woman’s foot being amputated as Yue: her bones exhibit no signs of any ailment that may have necessitated such an amputation, and the harm appears to have been done coarsely rather than with the precision of a medical amputation.

According to study lead author Li Nan, an archaeologist at Peking University in China, the researchers investigated alternative options for how the woman might have lost her foot, such as an accident, a combat injury, or a surgical treatment. But, she told Live Science in an email, “after careful observation and media discussions, our research team ruled out other possibilities and agreed that punitive amputation is the best interpretation.”

According to a 2019 study published in the Tsinghua China Law Review, the Yue punishment was used in ancient China for nearly 1,000 years before being banned in the second century B.C. According to Li, up to 500 various infractions might result in a foot being removed at the time the woman was alive, including rebelling, cheating, stealing, and even jumping over certain barriers.

“We have no clue what kind of crime she committed,” she stated, referring to the woman’s skeleton.

According to historians, Yue was one of the “five punishments for slaves” imposed by monarchs of the Xia dynasty, ancient China’s first dynasty, from the second millennium B.C.

There is substantial historical documentation of the practice, with a Chinese official complaining about the need to obtain special shoes for amputees in the first millennium B.C.
Minor offences were punished with beatings, but serious offences could result in one of five punishments: mo, in which the offender’s face or forehead was tattooed in indelible ink; Yi, in which the offender’s nose was cut off; Yue, in which the offender’s feet were cut off (some of the worst offenders had both feet cut off); and gng, a brutally complete castration.

According to a 1975 research published in the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law, the fifth was da pi, a death sentence that could be carried out by beheading if you were lucky – other options included being boiled alive or being torn limb from limb by horses.

The five punishments remained in effect until Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty repealed them in the second century B.C., replacing them with a system of fines, floggings, hard labor, and exile; the worst criminals were simply executed.

The woman’s skeleton was discovered in a tomb in China’s northwestern Shaanxi region in 1999, according to Li. The tomb was built between 2,800 and 3,000 years ago, when Zhouyuan was the greatest and most powerful city in the region.

The missing foot on the skeleton was initially disregarded, but a new investigation of the remains reveals more about the woman’s life, according to Li.

An anatomical examination revealed that the woman died between the ages of 30 and 35 and that she was in fair health aside from her missing foot. She appears to have had no sickness following the amputation, indicating that she was well cared for, and the growth of the surviving leg bones implies she lived for another five years.

Only a few shells were discovered in her grave, which could imply that she lived in poverty and was most likely buried by family members, according to Li.

The woman’s bones were free of any conditions that may have necessitated a foot amputation, such as diabetes, leprosy, or cancer, and there was no sign of frostbite or burns.

Furthermore, there appear to be few plausible answers for how it may have happened by chance. “It didn’t make sense that she only lost her right foot without other injuries if she was attacked or fell from a high place,” Li said.

The fact that the amputation appeared to be the result of an inexperienced or perhaps remorseless action — as seen by the bones that remain, including what’s left of the tibia, or shinbone — was a crucial hint.

“The cutting surface of her right tibia was not smooth and marked malunion [a badly-healed fracture] was observed,” Li stated. “A surgical amputation could do much better at that time.”

The Zhouyuan amputation is the oldest known instance of Yue. Researchers have seen disfigured bones with comparable injuries in ancient burials, and Li believes that older cases will be discovered: “The point is not finding, but identifying.”

The research was published in the journal Acta Anthropologica Sinica earlier this month.

Image Credit: Getty

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