Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer

Date: 05 March 2013 Time: 09:31 AM ET

In the second century, an ethnically Greek Roman named Galen became doctor to the gladiators. His glimpses into the human body via these warriors’ wounds, combined with much more systematic dissections of animals, became the basis of Islamic and European medicine for centuries.

Galen’s texts wouldn’t be challenged for anatomical supremacy until the Renaissance, when human dissections — often in public — surged in popularity. But doctors in medieval Europe weren’t as idle as it may seem, as a new analysis of the oldest-known preserved human dissection in Europe reveals.

The gruesome specimen, now in a private collection, consists of a human head and shoulders with the top of the skull and brain removed. Rodent nibbles and insect larvae trails mar the face. The arteries are filled with a red “metal wax” compound that helped preserve the body. [Gallery: Historic Images of Human Anatomy]

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The preparation of the specimen was surprisingly advanced. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the body between A.D. 1200 and A.D.1280, an era once considered part of Europe’s anti-scientific “Dark Ages.” In fact, said study researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R. Poincare in France, the new specimen suggests surprising anatomical expertise during this time period.

“It’s state-of-the-art,” Charlier told LiveScience. “I suppose that the preparator did not do this just one time, but several times, to be so good at this.”

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