The texts had initially been discovered decades ago in the 1970s, but scientists have now reinterpreted their meaning. Researchers think the find is important because previous anatomical studies had been based on old European texts – particularly Greek ones – while China was generally little-mentioned.
This new interpretation could also change the way scientists look at the study of acupuncture.
The ancient manuscripts were found in a tomb at the Mawangdui burial site in the Chinese region of Changsha.
Thought to have been written over 2,000 years ago between 300 and 200 BC, the texts refer to ‘pathways’ through the body through which energy known as Qi flows.
Such descriptions have been found in later texts which form the basis of the study of acupuncture.
Scientists had previously thought ancient Chinese anatomy was not the result of bodily dissection because human bodies were considered sacred.
However, researchers are now arguing the Mawangdui manuscripts do in fact show dissection had been performed in order to examine the human body.
This would mean the manuscripts are “the oldest surviving anatomical atlases in the world.”
Older texts are thought to have existed previously but were destroyed in the fire of the library at Alexandria.
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The study notes current knowledge of human anatomy studies from thousands of years ago is “limited” by a loss of many old texts and a “Eurocentric” view on medicine.
The study, which was published in the journal The Anatomical Record, reads: “Great emphasis is placed on anatomical discoveries made in Europe (especially Greece), but there is usually very little mention of China.
“This pattern persists even though these cultures have long and proud medical traditions.
“Here we argue that the ancient Chinese ‘Mawangdui texts’ constitute one of the very earliest anatomical atlases based on systematic human anatomical study comparable to that found in ancient Greece.
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“Crucially, where the early Greek texts perished, the Chinese ones survived.
“The study of the Mawangdui medical texts thus offers us both a unique window into ancient Chinese anatomical knowledge, and a chance to rediscover this way of seeing and mapping the human body.”
Isabelle Winder, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a university press release: “What we have done is to reinterpret the texts, which describe eleven ‘pathways’ through the body. Some of these clearly map onto later acupuncture ‘meridians’.”
“We have been able to show significant parallels between the descriptions in the text and anatomical structures, and thus rediscover the ancient interest in the scientific study of the human form.”
Co-author Vivien Shaw added the team’s interpretation of the manuscript “challenges the widespread belief that there is no scientific foundation for the ‘anatomy of acupuncture’”.
Authors Shaw and Winder were from Bangor University in the UK, while third co-author Rui Diogo was from Howard University in the US.
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