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How Accurate Were Pregnancy Tests in Ancient Egypt?

Ancient Egyptian pregnancy tests were surprisingly insightful for their time, utilizing grains to predict outcomes. Women would urinate on wheat and barley seeds, and growth indicated a positive result. While not scientifically precise by modern standards, these tests had a basis in hormone detection. Intrigued by how our ancestors approached this intimate life event? Join us as we uncover the roots of early medical practices.

It might be strange to imagine Cleopatra or Nefertiti stepping into a private alcove to urinate into a bag of grain, but thousands of years before the advent of at-home pregnancy tests, the Egyptians understood the usefulness of urine for predicting babies.

According to a recently deciphered piece of papyrus, Egyptian women as far back as 3,500 years ago would commonly urinate into one bag of barley and one bag of wheat when they wanted to know if they were expecting.

An ancient Egyptian pregnancy test involving urinating in bags of grain has been found to be around 70% accurate.
An ancient Egyptian pregnancy test involving urinating in bags of grain has been found to be around 70% accurate.

The method, which was practiced not only in Egypt but in many other countries for centuries, might not have been exactly perfect (sprouting barley was seen as forecasting a boy whereas sprouting wheat supposedly indicated that a girl was on the way), but it was found to be around 70 percent accurate in determining pregnancy. That finding came from researchers who put the grain to the test back in 1963. They suspected that the excess estrogen in a pregnant woman's urine might be the catalyst for the sprout that, well, points to another sprout in human form.

Testing, testing:

  • False negatives on tests are relatively common in early pregnancy, but false positives are rare.

  • A woman's urine contains the greatest amount of hCG – the hormone produced during pregnancy – after four hours of holding it in.

  • The only real difference between expensive and inexpensive take-home pregnancy tests is the way in which the "answer" is displayed.

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    • An ancient Egyptian pregnancy test involving urinating in bags of grain has been found to be around 70% accurate.
      An ancient Egyptian pregnancy test involving urinating in bags of grain has been found to be around 70% accurate.