It seemed like a scene straight out of a crime novel. The skeletons of two unrelated men – they had died 200 years apart – lay in two individual graves with spectacularly similar signs of wounds. One was missing about a fifth of his left leg, while the other was missing the same length of bone, with a difference of just a centimeter, on his right.

Both victims died more than 2,000 years ago, creating a mystery that would perplex the most experienced of researchers. The two individuals, who were members of the aristocracy of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, were buried in the Chinese province of Henan, located in the central part of the country.

Dr. Qian Wang, paleoanthropologist at Texas A University

The researcher points out that this brutal practice was known as Yue and was intended to permanently shame and harm criminals by eliminating parts of their body. “According to the criminal laws of the Zhou Dynasty, punitive amputation was carried out in criminal cases that included deceiving the monarch, running away from duties, stealing…” explains Wang.

This form of punishment, he adds, was only one point below execution in the penal system of the time. “On some occasions, it could serve as a reduced sentence instead of death, to reflect leniency,” adds the specialist. The two men had one of their feet and about three inches of their leg removed.

While amputations were also used in a medical context to treat trauma and illness, Wang believes these two cases make more sense within this punitive framework. “Based on the historical and archaeological context, criminal amputation is the most plausible,” he says.

The skeletons of the two men, who died at different times, 2,300 and 2,500 years ago, were unearthed at an archaeological site in the northwestern part of the city of Sanmenxia, ​​located along the Yellow River, about 800 kilometers southwest of Beijing.

Although it is impossible to know exactly what they were accused of, Qiang Wang noted in a statement that their crimes may have differed in severity, as historical evidence suggests that amputation of the right leg was reserved for especially serious crimes.

In both cases, the amputated leg showed significant signs of healing, with the remaining sections of bone fused cleanly at the bottom. The Chinese expert indicates that the bone normally takes several months to heal, after which the men continued to live for an unknown number of years.

However, over time, unused bones begin to deteriorate and become brittle. The researcher observed this “disuse atrophy” especially in the individual with the right leg amputation, suggesting that he may have lived longer than the other man without part of his body.

“Since pity amputation was not an uncommon phenomenon, they could have returned to their daily lives and been buried properly after death,” Wang said, noting that the men’s high status likely facilitated their physical recovery. And social.

“These cases enrich our understanding of criminal laws and their implementations, healthcare capabilities, and general benevolent attitudes toward those who were punished by law in the social and archaeological contexts of ancient China,” he adds.

“The Zhou dynasty had a distinct hierarchical system, called The Way of Rituals, which defined the different social statuses of people during life and after death,” he says. “(This system) was mapped into burial patterns, whereby social status was indicated by the size of the tombs, their orientations, the layers of coffins and grave goods,” he notes.

The existence of multi-layered coffins for higher-ranking individuals is particularly useful, Wang explains, as the number can be analyzed to delineate their position within this hierarchy: seven coffin layers were used for a king, five for regional rulers, three for high-level government officials and two for low-level officials.

“The two individuals in this research were buried in two-layer coffins in a north-south direction,” Wang said, noting that this orientation was typically reserved for members of the upper class, with commoners relegated to smaller areas, in tombs oriented From East to West.

The presence of grave goods with vessels and stone tablets in the tombs further reinforces the argument that the men belonged to the social elite, while an analysis of specific isotopes in the bone tissue of the subjects implied that both were well nourished, another clue that points to his elevated status.

“The isotopic analysis suggests a high-protein diet in accordance with the Eastern Zhou aristocratic class,” said Wang. “[Based on all these factors], it is most likely that they were low-level officials,” says the researcher from the University of China. Texas A University

In many ancient societies, the reduction or elimination of body parts was a typical punishment for crimes such as theft, vagrancy and false testimony, the expert notes. In addition to leg amputations, other forms of corporal punishment in Zhou Dynasty China involved removing the condemned man’s nose or genitals.

“Punitive amputation,” he states, “was officially stopped in the Han dynasty during the reign of Wendi in 167 BC, with a decree to stop ‘punishment by body reduction.’ It was replaced by more humane measures such as flogging, forced labor and/or imprisonment.”

“The practice, however, was not totally eradicated. Evidence of punitive amputations, usually of the foot, was still found in later dynasties. The last case was during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), in which both feet of a man were amputated with a saw,” he asserts.

Some famous victims of punitive amputations during the Zhou Dynasty include military strategist and writer Sun Bin, as well as Bian He, who had an unfortunate story that has become an iconic piece of Chinese history and tradition.

“Bian He learned the consequences of deceiving the kings of the State of Chu,” Wang recalls. “They cut off his left foot, then his right after twice determining that a valuable jade he had found was worthless. Only later was it discovered that the jade was authentic.”

Punitive amputation of feet and legs was so common, he notes, that the legendary philosopher Han Feizi took special note of it in his writings. This gave rise to a famous Chinese idiom that states that because of this cruel and common punishment, shoes became cheaper and prosthetics more expensive.

As Wang points out in his article, the routine nature of punitive amputation would have required significant collaboration between the criminal justice system and medical professionals, with protocols in place for removing the leg, closing the wound, and caring for the patient afterward.

People from a higher social caste might even have had access to analgesic agents during and after the procedure. In the case of the individuals discovered at Sanmenxia, ​​Wang said the lack of secondary fractures and bone fragments may be indicative of improvements in amputation and nursing care practices during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, compared with those of previous dynasties. Western Zhou and Shang.

“The amputation punishment sign and signs of good post-punishment recovery reflect a well-established amputation protocol that includes post-execution nursing and patient management to facilitate survival and recovery. In these two cases, two amputees survived well thanks to this refined criminal and medical coordination,” he concludes.