A series of ancient texts were found in tomb no.3 at the Ma Wang Dui site at Changsha, Hunan Province, China. The 3 tombs belong to the Marquis of Dai, his wife and son, and were sealed in 168BC, to be opened 2,000 years later in 1973. Tomb number 3 was the resting place of Lady Dai, and the preservation of artefacts in it was extraordinary. The texts that accompanied her body covered all aspects of Chinese life, and amongst them were found the earliest records of Chinese medical practice.
The texts contain descriptions of meridians or channels, which run through the body. Each chapter starts with a description of the meridian, followed by a list of the associated diseases. In Confucian times, the bodies of the dead were sacrosanct. It is therefore generally assumed that dissection of the human body did not form part of medical thought. Here we argue that the meridian descriptions found in this text are in fact descriptions of the physical body, which can only have been arrived at through cadaveric dissection.
We used a combination of 2 translations of the original text to identify possible variations in interpretation of the original Chinese, and performed dissection in accordance with the HTA (2006), to see if we could reasonably identify structures which mapped onto the descriptions given. There are 11 chapters, organised into 6 divisions, with upper and lower limb meridians in each division (11 in total- 6 lower limb, 5 upper limb).
Here we discuss the lower limb meridians only, where we found that each division reflects an easily recognisable body layer, going from superficial to deep.
This means that the Ma Wang Dui medical texts could represent the world’s oldest extant anatomical atlas based on the human form.