Rare Papyrus Manuscripts Reveal The Great Depths Of Medical Knowledge That Ancient Egyptian Doctors Had

The ancient Egyptian manuscripts that reside at the University of Copenhagen give medical advice for items ranging from diagnosing a pregnancy to treating eye diseases.

A large collection of rare papyrus manuscripts reside at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and one of these in particular has revealed how well ancient Egyptians understood medicine and the human body.

As Science Nordic report, many of these texts have yet to be fully translated and include not just medicine, but many other fields of research that ancient Egyptians would have focused on at the time, according to Egyptologist Kim Ryholt.

“A large part of the texts are still unpublished. Texts about medicine, botany, astronomy, astrology, and other sciences practiced in Ancient Egypt.”

A group of researchers is now working on translating these texts, and one of these is Ph.D. student Amber Jacob, from the Institute for the Study of The Ancient World at New York University. Jacob is currently investigating a series of medical texts that were once held at the Tebtunis temple library, a place that existed until 200 BC, and which was in use even before the illustrious Library of Alexandria.

To her great surprise, Amber Jacob has learned through these papyrus manuscripts that ancient Egyptians understood that humans had kidneys, and these texts are the first in existence to describe this organ.

“It’s the oldest known medical text to discuss the kidneys. Until now, some researchers thought that the Egyptians didn’t know about kidneys, but in this text we can clearly see that they did.”

The papyrus texts also reveal that ancient Egyptians had a great belief in astrology, and this was used as a tool in an attempt to try and control and take charge of the future, as Jacob explained.

“Today, astrology is seen as a pseudoscience, but in antiquity it was different. It was an important tool for predicting the future and it was considered a very central science. For example, a king needed to check when was a good day to go to war.”

While we may think more of the ancient Greeks and Romans when we think about medicine and science, ancient Egyptian knowledge stretched much further back, and one of the manuscripts that were studied discussed medicine at a time when no other region in Europe was writing about it, according to Ryholt.

“When you hear about the history of science, the focus is often on the Greek and Roman material. But we have Egyptian material that goes much further back. One of our medical texts was written 3,500 years ago when there was no written material on the European continent.”

This particular ancient Egyptian medical text suggested different treatments for various eye diseases and also described what would normally take place in their version of a pregnancy test.

While it may seem unorthodox, it suggested that a woman should urinate into a bag containing barley along with another one of wheat. By watching closely to see which one sprouted first, this was apparently meant to determine the sex of the unborn child. Of course, if neither of these bags should end up sprouting, the woman was deemed not pregnant.

PhD student Sofie Schiødt, from the University of Copenhagen, went on to add that a great many of the ideas that were formulated and written down in these ancient Egyptian medical texts continued into Greek and Roman texts, trickling down to the Middle East. In fact, the Egyptian version of a pregnancy test was even written about in a series of German stories that date to 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. That really puts things into perspective, as it shows that the Egyptian ideas have left traces thousands of years later.”

With so many ancient Egyptian papyrus manuscripts still left to translate, researchers at the University of Copenhagen will be continuing their investigation of these medical and scientific texts to see what other surprises they reveal.

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