What is the oldest source that people knew for sure what makes a woman pregnant?

For such a source I understand that that the author knew what a man and a woman did 9 months before giving birth and that this act was the direct reason for a child. It is enough it is said "they slept together". Pornography would be accepted, if the connection between the act and insemination is said. It is not acceptable if child was some "divine gift", "blessing of Zeus" etc.

I think it would be very old as shepherds would know how to make their herds larger.

The oldest I could find is a Holy Bible, in Genesis Chapter 4 verse 1 and then 17:

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. (...) And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch (...)

If somebody could explain if "knew his wife" means "had a sexual relationship with her". If not, we can go further (Chapter 6 verse 4):

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

(Chapter 19:)

And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said unto the younger, "Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father." And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, "Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father." And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. And the firstborn bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day. And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.

The Wikipedia says that the Book of Genesis is ca. 6-5 century BC:

This leaves the question of when these works were created. Scholars in the first half of the 20th century came to the conclusion that the Yahwist was produced in the monarchic period, specifically at the court of Solomon, and the Priestly work in the middle of the 5th century BC (the author was even identified as Ezra), but more recent thinking is that the Yahwist was written either just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period or soon after.

Are there any other, older sources confirming that people knew where children did come from?

(all Bible citations from KJV)

  • 9
    For what it's worth, since a certain age I also came to realize that "knew his wife" is code for "slept with her" in the Bible :) I think this biological knowledge you are seeking to confirm must be much older than the bible, for it must have had critical importance to the legitimacy of all kinds of dynasties also throughout ancient history: heirs were expected to be rulers' sons in a fairly concrete way.
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 7:47
  • As English is not my first language, I clearly do not understand what "knew his wife" means, I can only suppose. In official (Catholic) Polish translation (20th cent.) it is "he came close to his wife" (but this is obvious what it means). I was not sure if it is such obvious in English.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 8:33
  • The German official (Catholic) translation reads "Adam erkannte Eva", i.e. "Adam recognized Eva", which could plausible invite another interpretation of them entering into some kind of formal relationship first ...
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 8:47
  • less academic source, but similar topic : straightdope.com/columns/read/734/…
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 10:15
  • 2
    The oldest source for a description of basic facts human reproduction will probably tell you something about when the oldest surviving sources date from and pretty much nothing about when humans actually knew.
    – Nathan
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


The Ancient Egyptians were pretty much aware of the general mechanics of childbirth.

The earliest source I could find is one of the Kahun Papyri, the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (~1850 BC). It deals with women's health, including pregnancy, fertility, menstrual issues and medical contraception. This last issue, contraception, is the more revealing of the Egyptians understanding of childbirth. Contraception, and birth control in general, cannot be effective without at least a general idea of where children come from.

The papyrus encourages the use of crocodile feces as a contraceptive. The method relies on applying the excrement inside the vagina and forming a wall that would block the sperm. Furthermore crocodile feces are slightly alkaline, like modern spermicides, so the method might have offered a second level of contraception.

The Berlin Papyrus (Middle Kingdom: ~2000 BC to ~1700 BC) suggests a similar method, replacing crocodile feces with ash from burning emmer (wheat) seeds. Regardless of the material used, the method survived for almost 3 millenia. It appears in Avicenna's Canon of Medicine (~1025 AD), with Avicenna preferring elephant excrement.

The medical Ebers Papyrus (~1550 BC) shows a leap in medical knowledge since the Kahun Papyrus, discussing, amongst other things, abortion and providing a formula for a vaginal pessary.


  • 2
    +1 I love esp. that colorful detail re crocodile feces :)
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 13:59
  • 1
    @Drux I... tried to avoid it, but I couldn't find a better way to convey the message that the feces were used medically and not ritualistically / religiously (i.e. magic crocodile dung).
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 14:05
  • Well done then ...
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 14:07
  • 2
    Yannis, great answer, thank you. I wonder now how successful were these methods. I found on Wikipedia: The oldest claimed representation of condom use is a painting in the French cave *Grotte des Combarrelles* the paintings in this cave are 12,000–15,000 years old
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 18:49
  • 1
    @Voitcus No idea how effective the methods were, but I think the fact the excrement method survived for almost 3 millenia points to it being generally effective.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 18:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.