I know that the idea that humans have 360 joints appears in a few old sources. One is from the Islamic tradition, from Sahih Muslim 1007a, a text that was first written maybe in the 9th century AD. I also know it appears in another text known as the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals, attributed to Dong Zhongshu in the 2nd century BC, which states that “Man has 360 joints, which match the number of Heaven (the round number of days in a year)” (Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, pg. 280). How old is this idea?
The idea that humans have 360 joints appears to derive from ancient Chinese cosmology. Notice what Dong Zongshu says more fully when he makes this statement;
Man has 360 joints which match the number of heaven. ... He has ears and eyes above, with their keen sense of hearing and seeing, which resemble the sun and the moon. His body has its orifices, which resemble rivers and valleys. His heart has feelings of sorrow, joy, pleasure, and anger, which are analogous to the spiritual feelings [of Heaven]. As we look at man's body, how much superior it is to that of other creatures and how similar to Heaven!... Man is distinct from other creatures and forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth ... The agreement of Heaven and Earth and the correspondence between yin and yang are ever found complete in the human body. The body is like Heaven. Its numerical categories and those of Heaven are mutually interlocked ... Internally the body has five viscera, which correspond to the five agents. Externally there are four limbs, whichc orrespond to the four seasons. The alternating of opening and closing the eyes corresponds to day and night ... [and] the alternating of sorrow and joy corresponds to yin and yang.... In what may be numbered, there is correspondence in number. IN what may not be numbered, there is correspondence in kind. (Quoted in Richard Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers Divination In Traditional Chinese Society, Taylor & Francis 2021.)
As many scholars of the subject have pointed out, Dong Zongshu considers the human body as a microcosm of the universe. Dong Zongshu came to the belief that humans have 360 joints on the basis that the 360 days of the Earth (in his traditional calendar) have some sort of correspondence to the human body, and this is how he identified it. If we go through some other ancient Chinese texts, we find similar statements to this effect. For example, in a text from the 1st century BC known as the Lingshu Jing (or the Divine Pivot), it’s said that “[i]n the year there are 365 days; human beings have 365 joints” (Bary & Blom, Sources in Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1, 1999, 2nd ed., pg. 276). So, this author identified the year as having 365 days, and so correspondingly stated that humans have 365 joints. The parallelism and basis for the origins of this number is clear and is based very much on the Chinese cosmology of this period of the human body as a microcosm of the universe writ large. Yet another source exists on the subject. The following is from the Huainanzi which was written in the 2nd century BC, and purports to quote the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (who lived in the 6th century BC);
Laozi said: Man is born in the change of Heaven and Earth, ... his head is round modeled on heaven, his feet are square just like earth. Nature has four seasons, five elements, nine stars, and three hundred and sixty days, man has four limbs, five zang organs, nine apertures, and three hundred and sixty parts. Nature has winds and rains, and is affected by cold and heat; man has likes and dislikes, and is affected by joy and anger. The gallbladder is the cloud, and the lung the air, the spleen the wind, the kidney the rain, and the liver the thunder. Man is similar to Heaven and Earth in kind, and the heart is his master. His ears and eyes are the sun and moon, and his blood and qi are rain and wind. (Ning Yu, The Chinese HEART in a Cognitive Perspective Culture, Body, and Language, De Gruyter 2009, pg. 42)
Although it purports to quote Laozi, there is evidence that the Chinese cosmology of the human body as a microcosm of the universe goes back to the Han dynasty and so this is roughly the period that this idea may have emerged in (and makes sense given the date of these texts). It's possible the idea is earlier but I'm not aware of any indications that it is.
While it is not speaking about or described as "joints" here, Suśruta-saṃhitā, which is an ancient Sanskrit text from India composed between 6th century BCE and 5th century CE, speaks of 360 bones in human body. The text later got translated to Arabic in Baghdad during the 8th century CE and later the translation reached to Europe by the end of medieval period.
This is the passage from the text (Translated to English from Sanskrit by Hoernle):
"...the professors of Ayurveda speak of three hundred and sixty bones, but books on Shalya-Shastra (surgical science) know of only three hundred." - taken from Hoernle, A. F. Rudolf (1907). Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India: Osteology or the Bones of the Human Body. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Page 70.
The discussion shows that the Indian tradition nurtured diversity of thought, with Sushruta school reaching its own conclusions and differing from the Atreya-Caraka tradition. The differences in the count of bones in the two schools is partly because Charaka Samhita (Charaka Samhita is another Indian older work text and here it counted 360 bones. It also got translated to Arabic in 8-9th century, similar as Susruta) includes thirty two teeth sockets in its count, and their difference of opinions on how and when to count a cartilage as bone (both count cartilages as bones, unlike current medical practice). Other similar ancient India works also agree on 360 bones. With a work that show acquaintance with both Susruta and Charaka counts 360 bones too. According to this one particular website, it seems the translation for the english version of the Islamic tradition text (i.e hadith Sahih Muslim; compiled in 9th century) is not entirely accurate. There are words that actually and roughly mean "bones" here when analyzed. And the text itself (with more accurate translation) seems to be indicating or implying that both bones and joints are viewed to have the same amount and not counted or seen separately.
- Meulenbeld, Gerrit Jan (1999). A History of Indian Medical Literature. Groningen: Brill (all volumes, 1999-2002). Page 352 (Volume IA)
- Ramachandra S.K. Rao, Encyclopaedia of Indian Medicine: historical perspective, Volume 1, 2005 Reprint (Original: 1985), pp 94-98.
- Scuderi, Nicolò; Toth, Bryant A. (2016). International Textbook of Aesthetic Surgery.
- Menick, Frederick J (11 October 2017). "Paramedian Forehead Flap Nasal Reconstruction: History of the Procedure, Problem, Presentation".
- Hoernle, A. F. Rudolf (1907). Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India: Osteology or the Bones of the Human Body. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Page 70-72.
- Ibid. Page 73-74.
- Ullmann, Manfred (1978). Islamic Medicine. Edinburgh University Press. Page 19-20.
- A History of Medicine: Byzantine and Islamic medicine, volume IV, by Plinio Prioreschi (1996). Page 212.
- A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume 2 by Daguspta (1922). Cambridge University Press. Page 279.
Every one of the children of Adam has been created with three hundred and sixty joints; so he who declares the Glory of Allah, praises Allah, declares Allah to be One, Glorifies Allah, and seeks forgiveness from Allah, and removes stone, or thorn, or bone from people's path, and enjoins what is good and forbids from evil, to the number of those three hundred and sixty joints, will walk that day having saved himself from the Fire.
1500 years ago.
Sahih Muslim 1007a
In-book reference : Book 12, Hadith 67
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 5, Hadith 2199
(deprecated numbering scheme)