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How ancient Egyptians tested for pregnancy

The ancients had accurate pregnancy tests

For all of the advancements made in women’s reproductive health throughout history, the nature of pregnancy tests has remained rather primitive. The ancient Egyptians used a urine sample to test for pregnancy, much like our modern methods — only their tests also relied on barley and wheat seeds.

Details of the method were found on a papyrus scroll dating to around 1350 BCE.  Potential mothers were advised to urinate on bags containing wheat and barley, and according to the theory, if the grains sprouted shortly after, it indicated pregnancy. A 1963 studyreproduced the test and found it successfully diagnosed pregnancy in about 70% of expectant mothers. While the ancient Egyptians believed the test worked because of the life-generating power of childbearing, it’s more likely that the heightened levels of estrogen in urine during pregnancy helped stimulate the seeds’ growth. 

The seed method endured for an impressively lengthy period. Variations of the test were found in Greek and Roman medicine, Middle Eastern practices during the Middle Ages, and as recently as 1699 in a book of German folklore. The ancient pregnancy test also observed which type of grain grew first. “If the barley grows, she will get a boy child,” the text of the papyrus stated, according to one translation. “If the emmer [wheat] grows, she will get a girl child.” This prediction, however, did not hold up to modern tests for accuracy. 

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