Acupuncture isn’t dangerous, but assumptions can be.
I begin this post with a Top Gun quote, well, because I can. But also because I’m going to talk about the frozen prehistoric “iceman” nicknamed Oetzi (or Otzi, more properly Ötzi) – his body offers unique archaeological evidence for the period and has captured the public imagination. Apparently, he’s also captured that of the alternative medicine crowd. It’s claimed that Oetzi’s many tattoos are evidence of a therapeutic medicine using the same points as Chinese acupuncture and acupressure. The evidence for this is a supposedly close correlation (around 80%) between his tattoos and acupuncture points. From this we now have the claim becoming established outside academic circles (and probably within them too) that Oetzi “received acupuncture treatments“.
The source is not some crackpot internet website, but a legitimate Lancet article. You’ll need to register for free to see it, so I include a mostly complete copy of it mirrored here (note that it’s missing the main correlation table).
The original article even gets referenced in academic studies such as this one by Edzard Ernst. Do have a look at that study, because although it doesn’t challenge the Oetzi article directly (in fact it takes it entirely on face value), it does highlight the key problem with this hypothesis, which is that there is no evidence that acupuncture points, meridians, “Chi”, or any other traditional mechanism for acupuncture, actually do anything at all. In all probability acupuncture works via distraction and the much-misunderstood placebo effect. It doesn’t matter where you put the needles, or even whether you use needles at all!
“So what?” you might be thinking. “Surely it doesn’t matter as long as these prehistoric people believed in it”. Well in fact it does matter – Any correlation between acupuncture points and the tattoos is meaningless unless there is a reproduceable mechanism that might allow independent discovery of the system (convergence), OR there is evidence of cultural exchange between China and the Alpine region in which Otzi was found (communication). In other words either the same thing worked in both places, using those same points, or the system was passed from one region to the other. Given the 3000 years and 5000 miles between the two, there is a huge gap in the evidence to be filled before we can claim anything more than co-incidence for this apparent correlation. In Light of this, making use of “expert opinions” from acupuncturists seems dangerously close to begging the question – you’ve already assumed that these are acu-points, and you’ve set out to prove this using a method dependent upon that assumption, ignoring other interpretations.
Cutting to the chase – the actual evidence;
“Expert opinions from three acupuncture societies indicate that nine of the tattoos could be identified as being located directly on or within 6 mm of traditional acupuncture points. Two more tattoos are located on an acupuncture meridian but not close to a point. One tattoo is a local point. Three tattoos are situated between 6 mm and 13 mm from the closest acupuncture points.”
So there are 15 “tattoo groups” that can be fitted to some aspect of the acupuncture system, and three of those are relatively distant. In fairness, they don’t claim perfect correlation – hence the 80% commonality referred to in the press. But this is within the team’s own system of measurement – the tattoos themselves are NOT “points” – they are series of lines, which of course each have length. From what point along the lines and within the groups, were the measurements made? There are 57 individual tattoos – though they are clearly grouped, what individual significance might each mark have? Why not just use crosses or dots? Suddenly the “80%” correlation doesn’t seem so sound.
The secondary correlation of “acu” tattoos with actual physical ailments is of limited interest, as it is in large part dependent upon the previous assumption. Only 8 of the 15 tattoos studied correlate with an afflicted body part – rather close to a chance correlation (is there a statistician in the house?). There is also the question of how common these ailments were at that time, in that location, in a man of Oetzi’s age. Given how common back problems are today, any back tattoo is likely to create “false positive” in this kind of exercise.
The whole thrust of the article appears to be proving a pet theory, and so rationalisations are made. The claim that the tattoos would have been hidden by “hairs” and “clothing” is beside the point. Millions of people choose to have tattoos that are covered most of the time. Some get them just for themselves, other so they’ll be seen, but only when barely clothed or entirely naked! The point is that we can’t second guess people’s body modification choices today, let alone those of 9,000 years ago. Despite this, interpretation of tattoos as “medical” in intent is a valid inference – it’s as likely as any other reason. But the direct comparison with modern alternative therapies remains a stretch beyond the evidence.
Finally, we need to consider that the history of acupuncture is not as it has been painted, nor as it has been presumed for the purposes of the Lancet article. This summary shows that the system used for comparison by the team (i.e. using defined points and meridians) is at best 300 years old, and at worst, only 60! This renders any suggestion of communication from or to the Alps by trade route, virtually impossible. As we’ve already discounted convergence – different cultures arriving at the same conclusions regards where to put their pressure/needles/herbal tattoos/raspberry jam, we’re left with the most parsimonious explanation – that the placement of the tattoos being somewhat close to modern acupuncture points is simply co-incidence and wishful thinking. At best, we have to call this speculation.