I Just Learned How Ancient Egyptians Took Pregnancy Tests, And I Physically Cannot Stop Laughing

<span class="copyright">Hiraman via Getty Images</span>
Hiraman via Getty Images

I’ve already ranted about one of my favourite rocks of all time (what, you don’t have one?) ― there’s a thousands-year-old ostracon in the British Museum littered with Ancient Egyptian sick notes.

But in case “drinking with Khonsu” or “scorpion” didn’t get you off work, maybe having a pregnant wife could. And thankfully, Ancient Egyptians actually had a reliable way to test that.

As Harvard wrote on their Science In The News blog, “In the first known pregnancy tests, ancient Egyptian women urinated on barley or wheat seeds: quickly sprouting seeds indicated pregnancy.”

Oh. Sounds fake? 

It doesn’t sound medically sound to modern ears, true.

But a 1963 study on the topic found that the tests were accurate ― in fact, they were about 70-85% correct.

Sure, it’s not as good as the 99% accuracy modern pregnancy tests offer when taken correctly. Still, it’s far, far more effective than I, at least, would have thought.

The first mention of the method is found on a 1350 BCE papyrus. Sofie Schiødt, then a PhD student from the University of Copenhagen who was studying the topic, told ScienceNordic that the Egyptian-style pregnancy test was found in a German document as late as 1699.

“Many of the ideas in the medical texts from Ancient Egypt appear again in later Greek and Roman texts. 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,” she revealed.

But why does it work? 

Scientists can only speculate, but it seems to operate in a sort-of similar way to modern pregnancy tests.

Today, pregnancy tests react to the levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in your wee.

“But scientists speculate that this old-timey test worked so well because elevated levels of oestrogen in a woman’s urine might have promoted seed growth,” HowStuffWorks says.

It’s not the first time quite hokey-sounding advice has turned out to be true. I’ve written before about old wives’ tales that turned out to be scientifically true ― among them were ancient associations between a “salty” taste on a baby’s brow and cystic fibrosis, and those between more intense morning sickness and female babies.

Still, I’ll stick to a regular pregnancy test should the need ever arise, ta very muchly.