Ancient Egyptian Pregnancy Test Survived Millennia Because It Worked

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
pregnancy, test
According to a text written on papyrus from around 1400 B.C.E., a woman could determine whether she was pregnant or not by urinating in two different bags — one filled with barley and the other with wheat. Michael Pohuski/Getty Images

We have a lot more in common with ancient people than we might think. For instance, it was as useful for a woman to know 3,500 years ago whether she was pregnant or not as it is today. And though some may scoff at many of the practices the ancients considered science — in ancient Egypt astrology was cutting-edge technology! — you've got to hand it to them: Some of their scientific methods have turned out to be pretty accurate.

According to some unpublished ancient Egyptian medical texts in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, what they had in the way of pregnancy tests was grain — specifically barley and wheat.


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.

According to the National Institute of Health, a study conducted in 1963 found that this method of determining pregnancy is accurate about 70 percent of the time — not bad, ancient Egyptians! — although it wasn't accurate at all when it came to determining the sex of the baby. Modern pregnancy tests rely on proteins that can detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), but scientists speculate that this old-timey test worked so well because elevated levels of estrogen in a woman's urine might have promoted seed growth.

Researchers currently poring over the papyri in the Carlsberg Collection are finding that medical information discovered in ancient Egypt didn't disappear when the Library of Alexandria burned — by that time it had made its way all over the African continent and beyond.

"Many of the ideas in the medical texts from ancient Egypt appear again in later Greek and Roman texts," Sofie Schiødt, Ph.D. student from the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. "From here, they spread further to the medieval medical texts in the Middle East, and you can find traces all the way up to premodern medicine."

The moral of this story is that women have always needed useful reproductive health advice, and if they have to get it from an ancient empire that doesn't even exist anymore, so be it.


Frequently Asked Questions

How did ancient Egyptians develop the concept behind their pregnancy test?
The ancient Egyptians developed the concept behind their pregnancy test through observation and understanding of their natural environment. They recognized the effects of certain biological substances, such as urine, on plant growth. Through empirical experimentation, they applied this knowledge to create a practical test, leveraging the natural properties of barley and wheat to indicate pregnancy.
What is the significance of using barley and wheat in the ancient Egyptian pregnancy test?
Barley and wheat are sensitive to hormonal changes, particularly to estrogen levels in a person's urine when pregnant. These grains were chosen for their reliable germination rates and the ancient Egyptians' familiarity with these crops. This choice reflects their advanced understanding of the natural world and its application to human health and reproduction.