Pregnancy Test in Ancient Egypt

Jesslyn Shields has written an article in which she says that archaeologists examining ancient Egyptian medical training manuals have found a document that might be considered the earliest recorded pregnancy test. According to Shields, the document dates from around 1400 B.C.E. Shields writes,

According to one papyrus text from around 1400 B.C.E., in order for a woman to determine whether she was pregnant or not, all she had to do was urinate in two different bags – one filled with barley and the other with wheat. If the grain in either bag sprouted after being peed on, the woman was definitely with child and could start planning accordingly. But wait, there’s more! In order to tell the sex of her new child, the woman simply had to wait and see which of the grains sprouted first. If the barley sprouted faster, the baby would be a boy; if the wheat sprouted first, it would be a girl child.

The test consists of women who think they might be pregnant urinating on wheat and barley whole grains/seeds. The ancient papyrus translates as follows:

“If the barley seeds sprout or grow, it means a male child will be born. If the wheat sprouts and thrives, it means a female child will arrive in a few months. If the barley and wheat grains never sprout and grow when a woman urinates on the grain seeds, the woman is not pregnant and therefore, will not give birth this time around.”

An article published in the Smithsonian Magazine says that the “Wheat and Barley” pregnancy test described in the papyrus medical text has been practiced for thousands of years.

Shields also reports that “Archaeologists actually tested the ancient Egyptian medicinal folklore in 1963. They had pregnant women do the test and found it to be 70 percent accurate. The reason why the ancient Egyptian and probably Sumerian test works is because the urine of pregnant women contains a high level of estrogen and progesterone, especially the estrogen that may help the grains to sprout.”

Read Shields’ article in its entirety here.

If this ancient Egyptian pregnancy test worked with a 70 percent accuracy rate, then, the test was highly reliable. The fact also that the grains sprouted only when the pregnant women urinated on the seeds, but not when women who were not pregnant urinated on them is another evidence that the procedure was truly effective.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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