Chinese texts found buried in an ancient tomb may contain the world’s oldest surviving anatomical atlas. The nearly 2,200-year-old texts that were written on a piece of silk were first discovered in the 1970s inside of tombs belonging to Marquis Dai, his wife Lady Dai, and their son, that was located at Mawangdui in Changsha, China. The Mawangdui medical texts date back to 168 BCE.
In the texts, the word “meridian” was used several times in reference to certain parts of the body. The word “meridian” is defined as a set of twelve pathways connected with certain organs in the human body which energy flows through.
One example of how it was used in the text was translated to this: one “meridian” begins “in the center of the palm, goes along the forearm between the two bones following straight along the tendons, travels below the sinew into the bicep, to the armpit, and connects with the heart.” The researchers believe that this “meridian” was in fact the ulnar artery that was being described.
Another “meridian” that was located in the foot “starts at the big toe and runs along the medial surface of the leg and thigh. Connects at the ankle, knee, and thigh. It travels along the adductors of the thigh, and covers the abdomen.” It is believed that the text was describing the “pathway of the long saphenous vein” that brings blood up from the legs to the heart.
According to the researchers, the texts “both predate and inform the later acupuncture texts, which have been the foundation for acupuncture practice in the subsequent two millennia,” adding that the discovery “challenges the widespread belief that there is no scientific foundation for the ‘anatomy of acupuncture’, by showing that the earliest physicians writing about acupuncture were in fact writing about the physical body.”
The researchers had a challenging time attempting to translate the texts. “The skills necessary to interpret them are diverse, requiring the researcher firstly to read the original Chinese, and secondly to perform the anatomical investigations that allow a re-viewing of the structures that the texts refer to,” they wrote in their paper.
After they carefully analyzed and translated the texts, they were pretty sure that what they were reading was the “earliest surviving anatomical atlas, designed to provide a concise description of the human body for students and practitioners of medicine in ancient China.”
Since the bodies of law-abiding citizens were very sacred during China’s ancient times, medical students were not given many options for dissecting and studying the human body; therefore, they only had access to the remains of prisoners who died while incarcerated as their deceased bodies weren’t considered sacred.
It was previously stated that the oldest known anatomical atlas came from Greece and was dated back over 2,000 years as the authors were Greek doctors Herophilus (335–280 B.C.) and Erasistratus (304-250 B.C.). But since those have been lost, the Mawangdui medical texts are now believed to be the oldest surviving ones.
A picture of the silk that the texts were written on as well as the tombs where it was discovered can be seen here. The researchers’ paper was published in the journal The Anatomical Record and can be read in full here.