The relationship between coitus and pregnancy was clearly recognized by the ancient Egyptians. For example, the Late Period story of Setna relates, “She lay down beside her husband. She received [the fluid of] conception from him”; and a hymn to Khonsu relates, “the male member to beget; the female womb to conceive and increase generations in Egypt.” Although the Egyptians understood the general functions of parts of the reproductive system, the relationships between parts was sometimes unclear. For example, they knew that the testicles were involved in procreation, but they thought the origin of semen was in the bones and that it simply passed through the testicles. Female internal anatomy was understood even less well. Anatomical naivety can be gleaned from the fact that, although the function of the womb was understood, it was erroneously thought to be directly connected to the alimentary canal. Thus, placing a clove of garlic in the vagina was supposed to test for fertility: if garlic could be detected on the breath of a woman then she was fertile; if not, then she was infertile.

In Egyptian households of all classes, children of both sexes were valued and wanted (there is no indication that female infanticide was practiced). In addition to fertility tests, tests for pregnancy and the determination of the gender of the child were devised. One test involved watering barley and emmer wheat with the urine of a hopeful mother-to-be. If the barley sprouted, the woman was pregnant with a male child; if the emmer wheat germinated, she was pregnant with a female child. If the urine had no effect, the woman was not pregnant. Though there actually may be some scientific basis for this test–a pregnant woman produces a variety of hormones, some of which can induce early flowering in particular plants–there is no known relationship between these plants and the determination of gender.

The birth of a child was a time of great joy as well as one of serious concern given the high rate of infant mortality and the stress of childbirth on the mother. Childbirth was viewed as a natural phenomenon and not an illness, so assistance in childbirth was usually carried out by a midwife.

Data collected from modern non-industrial societies suggest that infant mortality in ancient Egypt was undoubtedly high. One of the best ways to maintain a healthy infant under the less-than-sanitary conditions that prevailed in ancient times was by breast-feeding. In addition to the transfer of antibodies through mother’s milk, breast-feeding also offered protection from food-born diseases. Gastrointestinal disorders are common under poor sanitary conditions, and because infant immunity is reduced during weaning, children’s susceptibility to disease increases at this time. Indirect evidence for this occurring in ancient Egypt comes from a number of cemeteries where the childhood death rate peaks at about age four, which correlates with an Egyptian child’s introduction to solid foods. Prolonged lactation also offered a number of heath advantages to the mother. Primarily, it reduces the chance of conceiving another child too soon by hormonally suppressing ovulation, which allows the mother more time between pregnancies. The three-year period for suckling a child recommended in the “Instructions of Any” (New Kingdom) therefore struck an unconscious but evolutionarily important balance between the needs of procreation, the health of the mother, and the survival of the newborn child.

Egyptian children who successfully completed their fifth year could generally look forward to a full life, which in peasant society was about thirty-three years for men and twenty-nine years for women, based on skeletal evidence. Textual records indicate that for upper-class males, who were generally better fed and performed less strenuous labor than the lower classes, life expectancy could reach well into the sixties and seventies and sometimes even the eighties and nineties. Upper-class women also looked forward to a longer life than women from the lower classes, but the arduous task of bearing many children resulted in a lower life expectancy compared to their male counterparts.

Dolls and toys indicate that children were allowed ample time to play, but once they matured past infancy (i.e., were weaned) they began training for adulthood. Young girls assisted their mothers with household tasks or worked with them in some capacity in the fields. Other female members of the mother’s household would aid in the care of younger siblings. Similarly, young boys followed their fathers into their occupation, first carrying out simple chores, then later working and carrying out more important tasks. Parents also familiarized their children with ideas about the world, their religious outlook, ethical principles, and correct behavior.

The end of childhood appears to have been marked by the onset of menses for girls and the ceremony of circumcision for boys. That circumcision was a ritual transition from boyhood to manhood is indicated by references such as “When I was a boy, before my foreskin was removed from me.” As far as is known, in the Pharaonic Period only males were circumcised, but exactly how prevalent circumcision was through society is unclear. Some uncircumcised mummies, including King Ahmose and perhaps King Amunhotep I, indicate that the practice may have not been universal.

Young men did not usually choose their own careers. Herodotus and Diodorus refer explicitly to a hereditary calling in ancient Egypt. This was not a system of rigid inheritance but an endeavor to pass on a father’s function to his children. A son was commonly referred to as “the staff of his father’s old age,” designated to assist the elder in the performance of his duties and finally to succeed him. The need for support in old age and to ensure inheritance made adoption quite common for childless couples; one New Kingdom ostracon relates, “As for him who has no children, he adopts an orphan instead [to] bring him up.” There are examples of a man who “adopted” his brother and of a woman named Nau-nakht, who had other children, who adopted and reared the freed children of her female servant because of the kindness that they showed to her.

Although peasant children probably never entered any formal schooling, male children of scribes and the higher classes entered school at an early age. (Young girls were not formally schooled, but because some women knew how to read and write they must have had access to a learned family member or a private tutor.) Though we have no information about the location or organization of schools prior to the Middle Kingdom, we can tell that after that time they were attached to some administrative offices, temples (specifically the Ramesseum and the Temple of Mut), and the palace. In addition to “public” schooling, groups o

f nobles also hired private tutors to teach their children. Because education had not yet established itself as a separate discipline, teachers were drawn from the ranks of experienced or pedagogically gifted scribes who, as part of their duties and to ensure the supply of future scribes, taught either in the classroom or took apprentices in their offices.

Education consisted mainly of endless rote copying and recitation of texts, in order to perfect spelling and orthography. Gesso-covered boards with students’ imperfect copies and their master’s corrections attest to this type of training. Mathematics was also an important part of the young male’s training. In addition, schooling included the memorization of proverbs and myths, by which pupils were educated in social propriety and religious doctrine. Not surprisingly, many of these texts stress how noble (and advantageous) the profession of scribe was: “Be a scribe for he is in control of everything; he who works in writing is not taxed, nor does he have to pay any dues.”

Length of schooling differed widely. The high priest Bekenkhonsu recalls that he started school at five and attended four years followed by eleven years’ apprenticeship in the stables of King Seti I. At about twenty he was appointed to a low level of the priesthood (wab). In another documented case, one scribe in training was thirty years of age, but this must have been an unusual case.