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Did Acupuncture Really Originate In Sri Lanka?

Me and Viv

Wife Vivien and I, in pursuit of historical evidence (photo: Keith Scott-Mumby)

The popular and accepted view that acupuncture originated in China is now up for serious review. It is a cogent and viable theory of my late friend and colleague Professor Doctor Sir Anton Jayasuriya that Sri Lanka may well have been there first; in fact centuries before the Chinese usurpers.

To begin with, we can question dates. The view that acupuncture "arrived", so to speak, with the classic Book of the Yellow Emperor (200- 400 BC), is clearly wrong. This may have been the first time the points and meridians were written down in China. But history now takes us back much further. The famous Ebers Papyrus (dated from about 7,000 BC and now in the British Museum) shows diagrams of what are clearly acupuncture meridians.

In 1991 Oetzi the "Ice Man" was discovered mummified in the Tyrolean Alps. His frozen corpse has dated from 5,200 years ago. Oetzi was recognized as a warrior and clearly had many skirmishes in battle and several injuries had resulted. What was remarkable was that there were marks on the body coinciding with known acupuncture points.

oetzi the ice man

Oetzi, the Ice Man

X-rays of the ice man's body revealed evidence of arthritis in the hip joints, knees, ankles and lumbar spine. Nine of the mummy's 15 tattoos are located on the urinary bladder meridian, a meridian commonly associated with treating back pain. In fact, one of the mummy's two cross-shaped tattoos is located near the left ankle on point UB60, which is considered by several texts a "master point for back pain."

"The fact that not randomly selected points, but rather corresponding groups of points were marked by tattoos, seems especially intriguing," the researchers noted. "From an acupuncturist's viewpoint, the combination of points selected represents a meaningful therapeutic regimen." [References: 1. Dorfer L, et al. A medical report from the stone age? Lancet Sep 18, 1999;354:1023-5. 2. Glausiusz J. The ice man healeth. Discover February 2000.

This would mean that acupuncture dated from at least 2,500 years earlier than had been supposed and had arrived in Europe - long before it went to China!

This turns the traditional view on its head.

Can we say then where acupuncture did originate? Almost certainly, Sri Lanka. This is quite plausible, as Sri Lanka has an ancient healing tradition that goes back into the remote depths of antiquity. Moreover, Sri Lanka was the origin of much influential thought and substance. Sri Lanka (formerly known to the Arabs as Serendib, from which we get our word "serendipity") is mentioned in Ancient Greek and Roman texts. The earliest maps of the world show it quite clearly, just off the tip of the Indian subcontinent, whereas China was unknown in the West.

Indeed there is a powerful myth that Sri Lanka was the original "Garden of Eden", from which innocent Man was expelled by an irate God! Another legend says this is the land of King Solomon's Mines. There is little doubt the valley of gems in the stories of Sinbad the Sailor also refers to Sri Lanka. It is there today, close by the town of Ratnapura (which means "city of gems"), and the ground oozes precious stones in the mud every time it rains heavily.

However, concrete evidence of Sri Lanka's influence is more valuable. The Western pharmacopoeia has traditionally contained a number of substances unique to Sri Lanka and nearby Kerala. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098- 1179) wrote a number of medical tracts in which she mentions twenty five such Sri Lankan herbs and poisons. Notable among these is Nux vomica, from the Sri Lankan plant Goda kadura. Samuel Hahnemann made it into possibly his most famous homeopathic detoxifying remedy. Where did the Abbess get it: it only grows in Sri Lanka? The postulated links with Sri Lanka were there in classical times. Local history records quite clearly that an ambassador to Rome was witness to throwing the Christians to the lions. Roman gold coins dating from the reign of Julius Caesar and before have been found in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnuwara and other historical sites in Sri Lanka.

The ancient Egyptian pharaohs, who were buried in the Valley of the Kings and the pyramids, had their nostrils, sinuses and body cavities stuffed with black peppers, to preserve them, as part of the mummification process. It happens that this particular variety of black pepper, even today, grows only in Sri Lanka and nearby Kerala.

The fact is the Spice Route, which originated in Sri Lanka and went to Malabar, across the Red Sea to Arabia, and so into the Middle East and Europe, preceded the Chinese Silk Route by some 4,000 years or more (c. 7,000 BC). The chief spices, incidentally, were frankincense and myrrh, cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla. The scientific name of cinnamon, by the way, is Cinnamomum zeylanicum: zeylan means Ceylon, former name of Sri Lanka.It is interesting to comment that, moreover, the spice route has survived into the new millenium. The Silk route is long closed!

There is thus no doubt: Sri Lanka was a major player on the world stage. While China was still engaged in formative and destructive wars, Sri Lanka had great kings, great art and monumental works of irrigation and building. This little island was evidently on a par with ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Egypt of the pharaohs. Long before the Romans (400 BC), Sri Lanka had hydro spas, swimming pools, public baths with working spray-jet showers, major irrigation reservoirs and hydro-engineering skills that worked accurately to a fall of one inch in one kilometre.

But it has other claims to fame. Archeological investigations, at several cave-dwelling sites, using accurate modern dating techniques, have shown continuous habitation here by the earliest modern Homo sapiens taking place for over 37,000 years. Cro-Magnon Man (Homo sapiens sapientis, the wisest of the wise) may have come out of Sri Lanka and not "out of Africa" at all! Known locally as the "Balangoda Man", after the district of the same name, these were very sophisticated people. Their fine microlithic tools pre-dated comparable artefacts of central Europe by almost 20,000 years. From skeletal evidence they were a very healthy lot, averaged almost 6 feet in height (174 cm.) and often lived to a great age. Balagodans ate a diet of plants, animals and seafood (oysters, molluscs and other gastropoda), typical of today's fashionable "detox" plans.

balangoda country

beautiful lush Balangoda country (photo: Keith scott-Mumby)

The Balangoda district is lush and fertile and supports all manner of crops. Farming was developed here and Stone Age Mesolithic Man selected it for settlement, finding it a rich, harmonious and congenial terrain. It also has great mineral resources; there are over 50 varieties of precious and semi-precious stones abundant in the ground. The stones and gems were cut with incredible skill and gave rise to a microlithic tool culture. In what the late Professor Anton Jayasuriya describes as the first ever industrial revolution, Balangoda Man, over 30,000 years ago, began to fashion quartz, flint, bone, chert and other minerals into various functional shapes of great utility and technological sophistication.

belli lena cave

entrance to Belli Lena cave, Balangoda (photo: Keith Scott-Mumby

I mentioned earlier the history of healing from this little island of wonder.

The king has always been invested with healing powers. According to the epic chronicle the Ramayana, a king ruling Sri Lanka about 10,000 years ago, called Ravana, was also a great healer. He is portrayed with 10 heads, signifying immense wisdom, and twenty hands, signifying great dexterity. One of the pairs of hands is holding what could be acupuncture needles.

King Pandukabhaya (c. 500 BC) built the first general hospital in the world, according to American historians Will and Ariel Durant. King Mahinda IV built the oldest properly excavated hospital in the world, at Mihintale (8th century).

mihintale hospital

map schema of Mihintale hospital

King Dutugemunu is well reputed to have built many hospitals and put dispensaries in very village of size. King Aggabodhi VII (766-772 AD) studied the medical plants over the whole island of Lanka (to find out) whether they were wholesome or harmful for the sick. This is perhaps the first recorded instance of medical research in Sri Lanka. King Buddadasa (c. 3rd AD) is credited with the saying "If you can't be the king, be a healer." King Buddhadasa carried out great feats of surgery on humans and animals, including brain surgery. Professor Jayasuriya suggests the anaesthetic used was a mixture of acupuncture and herbal opiate wine.

Which brings me back to acupuncture. Sri Lanka almost certainly originated acupuncture. Small pointed bones and needles of flint, quartz, chert and other hard substances have been found among cave artefacts, going back over 30,000 years. Swiss archeologists Sarasin and Sarasin report these being used for acupuncture, as well as the obvious tattooing and stitching ("Steinzeit auf Zeylan", 1908).

Moreover, ancient Sri Lankan manuscripts depict acupuncture points mapped on the human body. Acupuncture was also used on animals. The probable reason that the Indian (Sri Lankan) elephant was successfully tamed is that acupuncture points were worked out that calmed the beasts and enabled them to be communicated with and trained. These are shown quite clearly in the accompanying illustrations, which considerably pre-date (500 years older) the now less important Yellow Emperor's Book.

elephant acupuncture points

The African elephant, of course, has never been trained. Remember that Hannibal crossed the Alps on Asian elephants, from along the spice route. "Nobody knows the acupuncture points needed to train an African elephant," points out Professor Jayasuriya.

elephant acupuncture 2
A modern rendering of elephant acupuncture points: From "The Puncture Reflexotherapy (Tsienn-Tsieu-therapy), 1988; by V.G.Vogralik and M.V. Vogralik.

And what became of "Balangoda Man" Their descendants are the Vaddas (aboriginal Sri Lankans), living in the jungles of Wanni. The Vaddas, along with Balangoda Man remains, have been extensively studied by Dr Diane Hawkey of the Arizona State University. Her analysis of dental morphology shows that Balangoda Man (Homo sapiens balangodensis) may well have marched forth and inherited the Earth. If she is right, history will have to be extensively re-written. Incidentally, the last Vadda chieftain, Tissahamy, died in 1991 at the ripe old age of 104.

A special descendant of the Balangoda aristocracy was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the word's first woman prime minister (of Ceylon, as it then was known). This was yet another Balangoda historical first! In the 1970s the lost acupuncture was regained and brought back to Sri Lanka by three Sri Lankan medical specialists. Mrs Bandaranaike awarded them WHO fellowships, thus completing the circle of the spread of acupuncture from Sri Lanka, to Europe, to China and then back to Sri Lanka.

As Professor Jayasuriya remarks: it had taken 37,000 years to complete the cycle!


Professor Jayasuriya and Medicina Alternativa has founded the Royal College of Practitioners, in honour of King Buddhadasa and the dazzling history of healing outlined here. The UK has an MRCP certificate (Royal College of Physicians) but it means little more than being skilled and recognized in pharmaceutical drug trading. I am immensely more proud to be a Fellow of the Sri Lankan Royal College of Practitioners, descended from King Buddhadasa, than I would ever be of the much vaunted English certification! Professor Keith Scott-Mumby MB ChB, MD, PhD, FRCP (MA).

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