How Old is Acupuncture? Challenging the Neolithic Origins Theory

Although westerners often think of this traditional Chinese treatment modality as a “new” form of alternative medicine, acupuncture is so ancient in China that its origins are unclear. According to Huangfu Mi (c. 215-282 AD), author of The Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, needling therapy was first used during China’s Bronze Age, over five thousand years ago. He attributes its invention to either Fu Xi or Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), two legendary figures of the Five Emperors Period (c. 3000-2070 BC). Modern scholars generally believe that acupuncture is much older, originating more than ten thousand years ago during China’s Neolithic Age (c. 8000-3500 BC).

In actuality, acupuncture may not be as ancient as has generally been assumed. A reconsideration of all extant documents and recent archaeological finds indicates that acupuncture may date back a mere 2100 to 2300 years, first appearing during China’s Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and rapidly maturing during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD).

Questioning the generally accepted origins theory.

The currently accepted theory concerning the Neolithic origins of acupuncture is based on two premises. The first holds that bian shi, specialized sharp-edged stone tools that appeared during China’s Neolithic Age, were used for an early form of needling therapy, prior to the invention of metal smelting. It is known that bian shi stone tools were utilized for a number of early medical procedures, starting during the Neolithic Age and continuing through the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). A number of descriptions of bian shi stone therapy appear in one of China’s earliest medical works, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic of Medicine (Huang Di Neijing, hereafter referred to as the Neijing) (c. 104-32 BC). It has been thought that these Neolithic stone medical instruments were precursors of the metal acupuncture needles that came into use during China’s Iron Age.

However, historical documents and new archaeological evidence clearly indicate that bian shi stone tools were flat and knife-like in form, used primarily to incise abscesses to discharge pus, or to draw blood (1). They were applied as surgical scalpels to cut, rather than as needles to puncture, and had nothing to do with needling therapy. According to the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia used similarly shaped bronze knives to incise abscesses over 4000 years ago.

Prehistoric Chinese people possessed needles made of various materials, ranging from crude thorns and quills to bone, bamboo, pottery, and stone. But just as the history of the knife is not the history of surgery, so the invention of needles and that of acupuncture are two entirely different things. Needles have historically been among the most commonly used tools of daily life for constructing garments all over the world. Medically, needles are used to suture incisions just as making up clothes with darners, hollow syringe needles (as differentiated from a solid needle used in acupuncture) are applied to inject fluids into the body or draw them from it, but pricking a solid needle into the body to treat illness seems very strange and enigmatical. In English, “to give somebody the needle” means to displease or irritate someone. Most people prefer not to be punctured with needles, and associate needling with pain and injury. Many plants and animals have evolved thorns or quills as powerful weapons for protection or attack. Needles were even used for punishment in ancient China. By trial and error, healers throughout the world have found treatments for pain and other diseases independently, for instances, herbs, roots, wraps, rubs, blood-letting and surgery, but acupuncture alone is unique to Chinese. Considering the unique Chinese origin of acupuncture, it is reasonable to assume that the invention of acupuncture was not related to the availability of either sewing needles or bian shi stone scalpels during China’s Neolithic Age.

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