Ancient Egyptian medical knowledge revealed by 3,500-year-old texts

Story highlights

Ancient Egyptian pregnancy test is the first known method to use urine

Modern analysis suggests the test may have some scientific basis

Research at the University of Copenhagen is revealing more about Ancient Egyptian medical practices

CNN  — 

3,500 years ago, a woman might have done much the same thing to find out if she was pregnant as she would today: take a urine sample and wait patiently for a chemical reaction.

A papyrus from ancient Egypt instructs a woman to pee into a bag of barley and a bag of emmer (the variety of wheat cultivated by ancient Egyptians), according to a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, who is studying the document.

“If they grow, she will give birth. If the barley grows, it is a boy. If the emmer grows, it is a girl. If they do not grow, she will not give birth,” reads the text, written in a hieratic script – the ancient Egyptians’ cursive form of Hieroglyphic writing – and dated to the New Kingdom era, sometime between 1500 and 1300 BC.

The reaction between wheat and barley and the urine determined pregnancy

The birth prognosis, which was first translated by a Danish Egyptologist in 1939, is just one example of a large collection of ancient Egyptian papyri belonging to the University of Copenhagen, acquired by grants from the Carlsberg Foundation. Of the 1,400 papyri, a tiny proportion are medical texts, most of which have remained untranslated.

“We’re dealing with the kind of material that is so incredibly rare,” says Egyptologist Kim Ryholt, head of the Carlsberg papyrus collection and part of the international research collaboration translating the texts. “There’s less than a dozen well-preserved ancient Egyptian medical papyri… Anything new will shed important new light.”

Promising new insights

Translation is a long process. “The texts are damaged, they are written in an ancient script that few people can read, and the terminology is immensely complex,” says Ryholt. c

The wheat and barley test was already known from a papyrus of a similar date that is now held at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. However, there have been other revelations since the research collaboration began in September 2017.

Until now, many Egyptologists thought that the civilization was unaware of the existence of the kidneys, but one of the translated medical texts discusses the organ, showing that their knowledge of anatomy was even more advanced than previously thought.

This papyrus, from c. 1500-1400 BC, is inscribed with remedies for eye diseases

Other papyri include various treatments for eye diseases, such trichiasis, when the eyelashes grow inwards toward the eye. The papyrus prescribes mixing the blood of a lizard, a bull, a female donkey and a female goat, and inserting the concoction into the eye.

Sofie Schiødt, one of the PhD students analyzing the texts, suggests that there may have been a standardized medical corpus containing tests and treatments used across ancient Egypt. But she urges caution, as the small number of papyri and the uncertainty as to where they came from geographically means that it is hard to say exactly how representative the texts are.

Transmission of knowledge

One thing is for sure, the pregnancy testing method had longevity. “We find the same test in Greek and Roman medicine, in the Middle East during the Middle Ages, and European medical traditions,” says Schiødt. The test appears as late as the 1699, in a book of German folklore.

In the ancient world, Egyptian medicine was highly respected and their methods were often adopted by other cultures, explains Andreas Winkler, an Egyptologist from the University of Oxford.

“Ancient travelers to Egypt were amazed at the fact that there were doctors specializing in particular areas of medicine and their knowledge was praised,” he says. “As the pregnancy test shows, it is clear that certain techniques found their ways beyond the shores of the Nile.”

Written in demotic script -- the writing commonly used from 7th Century BC -- this 2nd Century AD papyrus gives various treatments for anal disorders

Scientific accuracy

Not only did the method stand the test of time, it may also have some scientific substance. According to an article published in the journal Medical History in 1963, researchers tested the theory and found that in 70% of the cases, the urine of pregnant women did cause the grain to sprout. The test was deemed unreliable for predicting the sex of the children, however.

Modern scholars have attributed the test’s accuracy to the high levels of estrogen in a pregnant woman’s urine, which helps to stimulate growth in the wheat and barley.

So, did ancient Egyptian doctors know about hormones in urine?

“No,” says Schiødt, “any idea of hormonal influences is completely non-existent.” Instead, she suggests that the test’s accuracy is probably down to trial and error.

Other pregnancy tests attested in Egyptian papyri were less reliable. Winkler tells of the onion test that advises inserting an onion in the vagina of a woman, and if her breath smelled like onions the next day, it meant she was pregnant.

“It’s difficult to put our idea of rational, scientific medicine onto what they were doing,” says Schiødt.

Ancient Egyptian medicine was grounded in religious or mythological stories and pharmaceutical remedies were aimed to expunge spirits or demons from the body, she says. So, while they recognized diseases similar to those today, the treatments can’t be compared.