The oldest pregnancy test in the world is 3,500 years old: this is how the Egyptians managed to find out if a woman was pregnant
The scene takes place 3,500 years ago, in a crowded city on the banks of the Nile. A young couple approaches a rudimentary pharmacy and asks, somewhat shyly, if there is any way to know if she is pregnant. “Not only that,” the apothecary replies. “By proxy, we can know the sex of the creature.” And, immediately afterwards, take out a sachet filled with wheat seeds and another with barley seeds.
The mechanics are simple: the girl has to urinate on them. If the barley blooms first, it will be a boy; if it does wheat, it will be a girl. On the other hand, if no sack blooms: “the lady will not be pregnant,” the apothecary sentences. I’m fabulating, of course; but only about the characters and the script. This pregnancy test not only existed in Ancient Egypt, but its use is documented until the 60s of the last century. And last but not least, as we now know, was able to predict pregnancy with 70% effectiveness.
Low-tech, but what low-tech
Egyptologists had found references to this system for decades on loose papyri; But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a group of pre-doctoral researchers from the University of Copenhagen stumbled upon an accurate description on a 3,500-year-old papyrus. The document, in question, is a whole nephrology treatise and, in fact, it served to confirm that scholars were aware of the existence and function of the kidneys by the Egyptians.
Sofie Schiødt, the Egyptologist who translated the text, explained in the Smithsonian Magazine that when they looked to see if it was an Egyptian rarity, they discovered that the test is described in places as different as a German book from 1699 or in ethnographic reports from Asia Minor in the 1960s. That made them wonder if there was “something” other than popular beliefs.
And there is. In 1963, a team of researchers from the US National Institute of Health tested the method in question. They watered several containers of wheat and barley with urine from men, non-pregnant women, and treadmill women. The result was that, in the first two cases, the seeds did not germinate. In the third, however, they did. At least in 70% of cases.
The researchers’ theory is that it is the estrogens in the urine that would stimulate the seeds. However, no further studies have been done on the subject and no one has investigated further. That is, we cannot be 100% sure what is the reason that makes them work. Nor do we know if the test really differentiates between males and females. The team was unable to find a direct relationship between which seed germinated and the sex of the embryos.
As always, human ingenuity is immeasurable and, Although we must not romanticize the “wisdom of the ancients”, we do not stop discovering that they have things to teach us.