2,200-Year-Old Chinese Manuscript Becomes Oldest Atlas of Human Body and Its Diseases

Manuscripts written in Mawangdui text were discovered in 1973 from the tomb of Lady Dai, a Han dynasty aristocrat, at the Mawangdui burial site in Changsha.

Nearly five decades after they were discovered by scientists, a pair of manuscripts have become the oldest surviving anatomical text in the world. The manuscripts were unearthed from an ancient Chinese tomb at the Mawangdui burial site in Changsha.

Written in Mawangdui text, the manuscript is believed to be nearly 2,200 years old and details the pathways of the human anatomy including the diseases that may occur in theses pathways.

chinese manuscript
Manuscripts found hidden in an ancient Chinese tomb Wikimedia Commons

Manuscripts Were Written in 168 BCE

Even though the manuscript was discovered by the scientists in 1970s, they could not decipher it as the text was unknown. After learning the ancient language written on the document, historians were able to understand what was written in the manuscript, reported the Daily Mail.

A study published by the researchers at Bangor University in the journal The Anatomical Record stated that the Mawangdui medical texts were only discovered 40 years ago.

The manuscripts, which include different Chinese languages and dialects that were part of China during the Han era, were written in 168 BCE. It was found inside the tomb of Lady Dai, a Han dynasty aristocrat, at the Mawangdui burial site in Changsha, in 1973.

"Nobody has yet proposed that they are an anatomical atlas. We suggest that the primary reason for this is not that Confucianism renders anatomical study through dissection inherently implausible, instead, we propose that reading these texts requires the ability to view the anatomy of the body through a naive lens that is significantly different to our modern perception of science and medicine. Additionally, reading ancient Chinese is a specialist skill,' read the study.

The Mawangui texts make no mention of acupuncture, but gives descriptions of pathways, which was adopted by the Yellow Emperor's Canon – revealing the texts were written first.

Manuscripts Based on the Concept of Traditional Chinese Medicines

Stating that the manuscripts represents a substantial paradigm shift for scholars, especially those from the West accustomed to explanations of the universe that are based in modern science, the lead author Vivien Shaw with Bangor University said that team had 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.

"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," Shaw said about the manuscripts that were constructed before the well-known acupuncture texts of the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine.

Revealing that the ancient documents outlines the structure inside the human body and many were only seen through dissection, the study said that the texts describe the organization of the human body in the form of divisions or pathways, each of which has associated disease patterns.

"These 11 pathways carry the same names as the acupuncture meridians described in the later Huangdi Neijing or Yellow Emperor's/Yellow Thearch's Classic of Internal Medicine," it added.