Sunday, 22 June 2014

Pregnancy Testing in Ancient Egypt

Ptolemaic Period - Mythical representation of Cleopatra giving birth with goddesses in attendance as recorded by the Napoleonic expedition in the house Armant which is now destroyed. Description de l'Egypte 1809.

The Kahun papyri were found in 1889 by Flinders Petrie and contain gynaecological text. The third section, paragraphs 26-32 are concerned with pregnancy testing. It starts with observing that the vessels of the breasts are distended. This is one of the few tests that parallel the Hippocratic school. This is what Kahun 26 says:
'To recognise who will be pregnant and who not. She lies down while you smear her breast and her two arms and shoulders with new oil. You rise early in the morning to examine her. If you find her blood vessels fresh and good none being collapsed bearing children will be satisfactory. If you find them green and dark at the time of investigating them she will bear children late.'
Dilated veins over the breasts are well known as an early sign of pregnancy.
Paragraph 28 recommends placing an onion bulb deep in the flesh with a positive outcome being determined by the odour of the onion appearing at her nose. An incantation (the only one that appears in the papyrus) is recommended to help the onion test.
The Kahun, Berlin and Carlsberg papyri contain a series of tests for fertility, pregnancy and to determine the sex of the unborn child. The tests include the induction of vomiting and examination of the eyes. The most famous pregnancy test is in the Berlin papyrus (199). It recommends emmer and barley moistened in the woman's urine daily ('like dates and line sands in two bags') If they all grow she will bear a child. If the barley grows it will be a male. If the emmer grows it will be a female. If neither grows then she's not pregnant.
This technique was put to the test by Ghaliounghui, Khalil and Ammar in 1963. With forty specimens from pregnant women there was growth of one or both species in twenty eight cases. This growth seemed to be a good indicator of pregnancy but failed to show pregnancy in 30% of cases. The indicator of sex was less successful with seven correct and sixteen incorrect.

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