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Biopreserv Biobank. 2019 Apr;17(2):98-104. doi: 10.1089/bio.2019.0002. Epub 2019 Mar 28.

Reappraisal of the Mawangdui Han Tomb Cadaver Thirty Years After Its Unearthing.

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1 Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Central South University Xiangya School of Medicine, Changsha, Hunan, China.
2 Center for Preservation of Mawangdui Han Tomb Cadaver, Morphological Science Building, Central South University Xiangya School of Medicine, Changsha, Hunan, China.
3 Hunan Museum, Changsha, Hunan, China.
4 Department of Radiology, Xiangya Hospital, Central South University, Changsha, Hunan, China.
5 Department of General Surgery, Xiangya Hospital, Central South University, Changsha, Hunan, China.


The Mawangdui tomb No.1 cadaver, a female corpse from the Western Han Dynasty, was unearthed in 1972. Forensic examination at the time of discovery indicated fairly remarkable presence of bodily constituents at the anatomical, histological, and molecular levels. The cadaver was preserved in a formalin-based fixative afterward, and maintained in the Hunan Museum. To better protect this rare human corpse, a reappraisal of the status of preservation was carried out using noninvasive approaches, including X-ray radiography, gross anatomical examination, and histological, microbiological, and molecular analyses of sampled tissues. The cadaver remained essentially intact from a gross anatomical perspective, with radiography of the skeletal system and arterial contrast filling appeared comparable with the original documentation. The light microscopic features of the skin, cartilage, and skeletal muscle remained detectable, as were the stratified ultrastructure of the collagen and muscle fibers. The levels of nitrogen and amino acidic elements appeared elevated in the cadaver and liver preservation fixatives, with a higher calcium and phosphate concentration in the former. These findings suggest that there existed a certain degree of macromolecule degradation and bone decalcification in the cadaver, likely irrelevant to biological decomposition. The reappraisal also led to the implementation of stronger scientific measures to better protect the cadaver through a renovated Museum-University coadministrative management agreement.


ancient human remains; biological relics; cadaver preservation; nonbiological degradation


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