Comparative Guts

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400–300 BCE

Digital imaging and history of medicine

ATLOMY Project: Orly Lewis, Yael Baron, Dmitry Ezrohi, Yotam Giladi, Shay Hermon, Nir Propper, Marco Vespa

ATLOMY is based at the Department of Classics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
and funded by the European Research Committee, GA 852550.
The Guts according to Aristotle: A Visual Reconstruction
Ancient Greek anatomical ideas stand at the basis of modern anatomical knowledge. The writings of Greek physicians and philosophers reveal their perceptions of the internal parts of the body and the empirical evidence which shaped their perceptions. They gained such evidence from observing open bodies of animals in ritual sacrifice and planned dissections. To fully understand these ancient scientists, we must try to step into their shoes and see the body as they describe it. To this end we must try to bridge the gap between the text and the body and reconstruct from their verbal, textual descriptions the visual image they had in mind of the parts inside the body – including the guts. Project ATLOMY works to bridge this gap. We turn the ancient words back into visual representations of the three-dimensional body as perceived by the ancient authors. Classicists, modern anatomists and experts in 3D design and software development work together to analyze and decipher the ancient anatomical texts and ideas. We use philological analysis as well as hands-on dissections, which recreate the observations performed by the ancients. As part of our goal of creating a complete anatomical human model based on the writings of ancient scientists, we have created a 3D model of the digestive system as perceived by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (4th century BCE). To make these models accessible we have developed a groundbreaking integrative atlas of Greco-Roman anatomical ideas, terminology, and research. It offers tailormade viewing and research tools for researchers, students and the public. Follow our exhibits to learn how Aristotle investigated the anatomy of the guts and other organs in the 4th century BCE (Fig. 1); and follow the stages of ATLOMY’s work to interpret Aristotle’s writings (Fig. 2) and to create a 3D model of the digestive system as perceived by him (Fig. 3, 4). Explore these 3D Aristotelian guts in our interactive open-access Atlas of Greco-Roman anatomy (Fig. 5). Use the Atlas to delve deeper into Aristotle’s terminology and conception of guts or to explore other body parts and terminology used by Aristotle and other ancient Greek and Roman scientists and practitioners. You might recognize some terms!
Aristotle Perception of the Guts and Digestion

For Aristotle, the guts or the intestines were a place of marvelous change, crucial for all living organisms. Somewhere along the intestinal tract, between the stomach above and the colon below, food will make its first step in a long process that Aristotle dubbed “cooking” (pepsis). During this process, food will gradually assimilate into the body. First, it will become blood in the heart, then this blood, coursing through a complex system of vessels and tubes, will reach the different body parts and be absorbed into them. Blood, according to Aristotle, is the final form food takes upon itself before turning into a wide variety of tissues – flesh, bone, fat, and others. Instead of blood carrying essentials, like oxygen, to the different tissues, the blood itself is their foodstuff. Aristotle describes how in the intestines, the food makes its first qualitative leap in this long process. The heat of the stomach and intestines forces the liquid mass of food to separate into two substances – a thick vapor that will continue its way to become viscous blood and a heavier mass of waste which will be excreted from the body. In many ways, this process resembles the separation of cooked milk into whey and curd.

Nutrition stands at the nexus of organic life in Aristotle’s thinking. The ability to assimilate food into the body is what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate. So, when Aristotle inquires into the nature of the biological and even ethical and political lives of organisms, his inquiry assumes that they all share a process that happens in an anatomical system which includes some form of guts. This context is lost when we skim through this text unaided. By providing the reader with a three-dimensional model of the anatomical system Aristotle has in mind, something of the original context is regained. This ability to trace Aristotle’s description in space and not only with the mind’s eye is crucial for any engagement with the Aristotelian text. Aristotle’s inquiries were, for the most part, about embodied organisms whose spatiality and three-dimensionality are lost to us. This model and the project for which it stands are a step towards a better contextualization of Aristotle and the Greco-Roman culture in general.