Ancient Chinese Silk Text Could Be "Oldest Surviving Anatomical Atlas In The World"

A snippet of the Mawangdui Silk Manuscript. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This 2,200-year-old silk manuscript, found entombed alongside a family of ancient Chinese elite, could be the world’s oldest known medical textbook, according to a new study. 

Reported in the journal The Anatomical Record, the ancient Chinese text has recently been studied by anatomy experts at Bangor University in the UK and Howard University in the US, leading them to argue that this relic could be considered the oldest surviving anatomical atlas in the world. 

Known as the Mawangdui medical manuscripts, the silk texts were discovered in 1973 when archaeologists opened the tombs of Lady Dai, a Han dynasty aristocrat in 168 BCE, and her family at the Mawangdui burial site of Changsha in China’s Hunan Province. 

The manuscripts are thought to be a precursor to the famous acupuncture texts The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicinealso known as the Huangdi Neijing. Although the script doesn’t explicitly mention acupuncture points, it does describe “meridians” and pathways of connection still used in traditional Chinese medicine today. In particular, it describes the organization of the human body in the form of 11 pathways throughout the body, each of which has associated disease patterns.

It's understood that the history of anatomy traces its roots back to classical Greece. The question is: can this manuscript be considered a scientific evidence-based approach to understanding human anatomy? If so, the ancient Chinese were anatomists too.

From the perspective of Western modern medicine, the text has previously been interpreted as a loose description of mystical energies, rather than as empirical descriptions of the body. However, the researchers argue that, in fact, the descriptions are based on physical anatomical structures. Within their study, the researchers compare how the features of the body detailed in the Mawangdui manuscript do line up with observations of the physical human body. As one of many examples, the Mawangdui text alludes to the “tai yin meridian” that described some system of connection between the center of the palm, running along the forearm between the two bones. If we now look at a dissected human elbow, there is a flat band of tissue, called the bicipital aponeurosis, along the arteries and nerves that do follow this pattern. 

This isn't to say that acupuncture is a rock-solid science; although evidence-based research has supported the efficacy of acupuncture for some conditions like managing pain, in Western medicine the consensus is largely skeptical that acupuncture is an effective means for treatment for many more conditions. Nevertheless, the researchers argue that, in a sense, the Mawangdui manuscript is not simply a piece of mysticism based on unfounded ideas, but a valid attempt to describe human anatomy from the perspective of someone living in the ancient Eastern culture. 

“We have to approach these texts from a different perspective than our current Western medical view of the body’s separate systems of arteries, veins, and nerves,” study author Vivien Shaw, who lectures in anatomy at Bangor University’s School of Medical Sciences and has studied the anatomy found in ancient Chinese medical texts for years, said in a statement

“The authors did not have this understanding, instead, they looked at the body from the viewpoint of traditional Chinese Medicine, which is based on the philosophical concept of complementary opposites of yin and yang, familiar to those in the west who follow eastern spiritualism,” explained Shaw.

“Previous scholars have not seen the works as describing anatomy, because contemporary Confucian cultural practices venerated ancestors and so shunned dissection,” added co-author Izzy Winder from the School of Natural Sciences. “However, we think that dissection was involved and that the authors would have had access to the bodies of criminals, as is recounted in later texts.”

A snippet of the Mawangdui Silk Manuscript. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

 

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