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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The discovery of 'dancing of the heart'

Paleontologists have traced knowledge of the heartbeat to 2700 B.C. in Egypt.  Knowledge may even go further back than this because hieroglyphic writing first made it's appearance at this time, and many of these original writings have disappeared.  Knowledge of them is basically due to copies that have made it to modern times because they were hidden, preserved, in tombs.

Chances are, however, that such wisdom goes as far back as 5,000 B.C. or even further.  Knowledge of the heart must have been known even as far back as 30,000 B.C. as drawings made of ochre found in caves showed pictures of mammoths with a dot, presumably a heart, on them.  Before writing this wisdom was shared by word of mouth, often through easy to remember poetry and songs.

None of these people knew what the heart did, although they must have been aware that it often continued beating as they held the heart of prey in their hands.  When the heart stopped beating so to did life.  They knew an arrow through the heart killed such animals in their tracks.

The Egyptian Eber Papyrus was discovered in an Egyptian tomb in the 19th century.  It was dated to 1550 B.C., although it's believed to be copied from documents that go as far back as 3400 B.C.  One inscription in the text reads:
The beginning of the physician secret: knowledge of the heart's movement and knowledge of the heart.
There are vessels from it to every limb.  As to this, when any physician... or any exorcist applies the hands or his fingers to the head, to the back of the head, to the place of the stomach, to the arms or to the feet, then he examines the heart, because all his limbs possess its vessels, that is: it (the heart) speaks out of the vessels of every limb
In other words, the Egyptian physicians new of the pulse and that it represented the "dancing" of the heart as noted below:
As to 'the heart dancing:' this means that it moves itself to his left breast, and so it pushes on its seat and moves from its place.
If a person had no pulse, or if the "speaking of the heart to the vessels" stops, this is correlated to loss of consciousness.  

The Egyptians had no concept of arteries and veins.  Many of the 'vessels' they describe include ducts, the ureter, etc.  There is an ongoing debate as to whether they had knowledge of the circulation of the blood, although most historians speculate they did not have such knowledge.

Checking the pulse was described in ancient China, although in Ancient Hindu Medicine (India) wasn't mentioned prior to the 12th century.  It was mentioned in the Cikitsatilaka by Tisatacarya, and was later used as a means of diagnosis, particularly by the Muslims in ancient India.

The Chinese came the closest to describing circulation of blood through the body.  One of the most debated passages in Ancient Chinese medical texts regarding circulation of the blood is the following:
The four limbs and their eight flexible joints (elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles) are in use from early morning until late at night.  When people lie down to rest the blood flows back to the liver.  When the liver receives the blood it strengthens the vision.l  When the feet receive the blood it strengthens the footsteps.  When the palms of the hands receive the blood the hands can be used to grasp.  When the fingers receive the blood they can be used to carry.  When a person is exposed to the wind, either lying down to rest or walking about, his blood will be affected; the blood then coagulates within the flesh and the result is numbness within the hand feet.  When the blood coagulates within the pulse it ceases to circulate beneficially.  When blood coagulates within the feet it causes pains and chills. (3)
Does this mean the Ancient Chinese knew of circulating blood?  Or they could simply be referring to the circulation of the substance of life, chi.  Note the following passage:
(One can say that) water is the blood and the chhi (chi) of the earth, because it flows and penetrates everywhere (just in the same manner) as the circulation (of the chhi and the blood) in the ching-chin (nerve, muscle and tendon) and the ching-mo (tract and channel, including blood vessel) systems.
And the following:
Water is the blood of the chi in) the sinews and the vessels (of the human body). (3)
The neat thing about ancient writings is they were not written for generations thousands of years later to interpret.  They were written only as a means of relaying information from one generation to another.  They were for physicians to read only.  In other words, most ancient writings were esoteric (seen only by a select few).

So were these documents referring to the pumping of the heart and circulation of the blood, or simply the circulation of chi.  Either way, the information was not shared to other societies considering China was essentially isolated from the rest of the world until modern times.

Circulation of the blood through the vessels was discovered for the modern world by William Harvey in 1628.

Note:  The above Chinese passages are from the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen -- The Yellow emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, translated by Ilza Veith, Baltimore, William & Wilkins, 1949, pages 27-28, 30, 34, 118, 142.  


  1. Plinio, Prioreschi, "A History of Medicine," Vol. I, "Primitive and Ancient Medicine," 1991, New York, page 348 Note:  For those interested in this debate, Plinio provides a good picture of both arguments in the pages provided in this reference list
  2. Plinio, ibid, page 261-2
  3. Plinio, ibid, page 154-5

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