With the latest report on the pill's link to depression, you're probably as frustrated with our contraception options as we are. While we're in firm support of finding new and safer options, we thought it would be fun to consider how far we've come as a species in the birth control department.
It's no surprise that before hormones and condoms our ancestors were desperate for contraception methods, and so tried (and usually failed) to use some crazy methods. Most of these ancient rituals are as hilarious as you'd expect: like sneezing right after intercourse, jumping up and down, wearing a special belt, and eating squirrel meat. Some low-tech birth control methods you've probably heard of, like the pull-out method, have been known for centuries, but not everyone who practiced it did it intentionally for birth control!
While some of these methods are absolutely weird, others are actually more effective than you might imagine. Almost every society knew of one herbal method that had some degree of success, while some of these methods were so successful they could be used today. It turns out that the ancients were a little more sex-savvy than we thought!
15 Ancient Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian Societies
One of humankind's earliest contraceptive methods was fairly successful. The ancient Mesopotamians and the Egyptians practised prolonged breastfeeding, which can prevent ovulation. They also made various creams to apply to the cervix, one of which was made out of acacia gum. This is the sap of an African tree that produces gorgeous yellow flowers. Modern researchers have found that the sap produces lactic acid anhydride and this chemical is still used in modern spermicides! The Egyptian processing must have been successful at producing this chemical, as their wealthy families had an average family size that was smaller than would be expected if they didn’t have a form of birth control. Although, not all of these ancient creams were successful, of course. Some were made from honey, we imagine the rationale was to create a thick barrier semen couldn't pass through (but it can). Other recipes were pretty gross, one using crocodile dung. No guess as for the rationale behind that one.
14 Indigenous Australians
Aboriginal cultures often have interesting initiation rituals. One Aboriginal culture, from Australia, incorporated a fool-proof method of contraception into each of their boy's initiation into manhood. Be warned though, it is certainly the most gruesome ancient birth control that exists. With a piece of sharpened flint the boys were circumcised and then a second incision was made near the base of their penis all the way through. The boys were told that this was to happen, of course, but were only provided a stick to chew on to stop from screaming. No effective pain medication was available. The hole was kept open with a round stick, so it wouldn't heal shut. As a result, the boy's semen would be drawn through the hole by gravity, before it could be delivered to their women. If a man wanted to conceive a child he would have to cover the hole with his fingers! It was incredibly painful and perfectly effective, although from our perspective it does not seem worth it.
13 Earliest Chinese Records
The very earliest contraception references in Chinese history come from Sun Ssuma's Book called (in literal translation to English) A Thousand Gold Prescriptions. These methods were all about drinking concoctions that would prevent pregnancy but wouldn't harm the person, even though some of them clearly would harm the person according to modern knowledge. For example, one potion was a mixture of oil and mercury that had to be taken on an empty stomach. That could cause mercury poison, for sure. Other tonics were probably harmless, but the logic isn't too clear as to why the ancient Chinese thought they would help. One calls for barley gruel, another calls for rapeseed (a plant related to cabbage with an unfortunate name). What's even more odd is that the Chinese actually knew a low-tech method of contraception, the pull-out method, but they didn't do it for contraception! Instead they thought that a man who kept his "yang" (yes, they equated semen with this masculine energy) would ultimately have more male children when he didn't pull out.
12 Later Chinese Methods
The history of ancient China is a long one and new methods for contraception developed as time passed. Taoism, a major religion, invented one very humorous method of contraception. The religious leaders thought that pinching the base of the male genitalia would keep the semen inside, forcing it into the bladder! They also thought that the source of semen was the brain and that the semen would return to the brain if you didn't use it. If this seems silly, consider that the Chinese also were the first to discover how to use hormones to regulate fertility. For example, women who struggled getting pregnant would eat the placenta of other women, which contained hormones that really did boost fertility. It would have the opposite effect on a man's sperm production, which Hungarians have been known to take advantage of in the past.
11 Ancient Societies Of The Congo
These birth control traditions come from cultures who lived in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa. Some of the ancestral inhabitants of this area had some unique takes on birth control, including a very strict rule about not having sex during breastfeeding, which could be extended for years. If a couple from this culture was having sex, the woman could place cobwebs on her cervix to prevent a child. There were also a variety of plants that a woman could boil and drink as a tea to cause an abortion. However, there was a chance that a woman could die if she drank too much of one of them. There was also a tradition of wearing a belt with various herbs tied on it to ward off pregnancy. The most humorous tradition from this area was certainly one where a medicine woman would give a woman a snail that was supposed to magically prevent conception!
10 Other African Societies
Other tribes in Africa had different methods of birth control, some a little more strange than others. The Masai knew that the pull-out method was effective and practiced it intentionally. The Nandini tribe thought that refraining from sex for nine days after menstruation would prevent pregnancy, and routinely did so. Unfortunately, they were incorrect about when women were fertile and this nine-day period would have limited success. In Dahomey women would use roots to block the cervix. In Kwalflgo women used various herbs and cloths and some in this area continue to do so today, which unfortunately isn't effective and can cause other medical problems. In the past, Guinea women used a variety of douches that they believed would kill sperm including: lemon juice and seeds, high tannic, seaweed, mahogany extract, and even opium! None of these methods were effective because Guinea women used them after sex. It only takes ninety second for the sperm to enter the cervix, they were not likely fast enough for any of these solutions to take effect.
9 Ancient Indian Societies
It's no surprise that this home of the Karma Sutra had a very active ancient sexuality. There's a lot more description of non-penetrative sex acts in early Indian texts than there are in other ancient texts and emphasis on these sexual practices may have contributed to pregnancy prevention without anyone intending it to. Like their distant Chinese cousins, the ancient Indians also knew about the pull-out method and did practice it, but historians aren't sure why they did it. Several texts do list specific contraceptive methods for women's use, including a kind of douching with vapors, inserting small barriers into the vagina, and applying creams to the cervix. One of these methods was highly successful, the application of a mixture of rock salt and oil to the cervix. As long as the solution had eight per cent rock salt, it was a highly effective spermicide that would meet contemporary standards.
8 Ancient Iroquois
The Iroquois are an indigenous culture, originally from the New York state area. They didn't have many methods of contraception, but they are one of the only cultures to know, early on, that having sex during menstruation wouldn't cause a child. On the other hand, they also thought that sex during menstruation could stop it, but cause the woman some pain in her side. They also thought that if a pregnant woman ate food that had been cooked by her menstruating friend, she might have an abortion, and would also get a pain in her side. Other than this method, the Iroquois used a variety of herbs and foods that they believed would prevent pregnancy, including spotted coral root, liverwort, and beech tree bark. The most fascinating pregnancy prevention was squirrel meat, which the Iroquois thought would give any woman cramps and also prevent pregnancies.
7 The Ancient Greeks
The ancient Greek word for contraceptive was atokion and they had a large variety of them. Like the Chinese, the Greeks focused on potions that a woman could drink to prevent pregnancy, and they were all ineffective. Various kinds of berries, tree bark and leaves, and copper sulfate were tried. The latter was known to kill fungi at the time, and is now known to be moderately toxic to humans as well.
The Greeks also tried out quite a few cervical creams. They combined honey with peppermint, thinking that this solution would "dry out" a uterus. They also tried applying alum to the uterus (chemical found in sometimes in baking powder, pickling solutions, toothpaste) which they thought would function as a spermicide. To be honest, we're not quite sure how ancient women were supposed to apply the alum to their uterus. Either the Greek word for cervix and uterus were the same, or poor Dioscorides, who came up with the method, didn't know what he was talking about.
6 The Special Case Of Silphium
This renowned plant was in high demand throughout ancient Greece, and later through Rome, for its various uses including as a spice, a poison antidote, a leprosy cure, a perfume, a hair treatment, a contraceptive, you name it. For use as a contraceptive, the ancients would take the sap from the plant, along with some leaves, and brew a tea of it. A woman was intended to drink it at various times after having sex. This might mean that the tea functioned as an abortion inducer, instead of a contraceptive. However, we'll never truly know if or how it worked, because the plant went extinct! It would only grow in Kyrenaika (contemporary Lybia) and would not transport to other soil. The Kyrenaikians grew rich off exporting the plant, it even featured on their coins, but the high demand forced it into extinction around the first century AD. No one could keep their hands off it.
5 The Ancient Hawaiians
Hawaii and surrounding islands are well-known for their ancient practices of massage to cure all kinds of aliments, including mental ones as well as physical. While pregnant women were often given massages to aid in their pregnancy, they could also receive massages from their community's kahuna (medicine person) that were intended to prevent pregnancy and/or produce an abortion. Studies on these methods have shown that they were actually very effective, at least if they were the same as methods that modern Kahunas still known about (although modern Hawaiians are more likely to use modern contraception). If the massage was not effective, occasionally women who had an unwanted pregnancy would commit infanticide after the child was born, or to give the child up for adoption.
4 The Romans
If you think of the Romans as practical people, with a lot of will power, you aren't going to be disappointed here. Their main method of contraception was very straightforward: don't have sex. Some Roman doctors advised a married couple to eat a lot of leafy greens to stunt their sexual drives. Generally Romans thought that having sex would spoil breast-milk, so that gave a nice gap between babies. Also, women were advised to avoid having sex during ovulation. The only problem was, no one knew when it happened. The most popular idea was that ovulation began right after menstruation, which we know is wrong. The worst advice came form some professionals who insisted that women "just knew" when they were ovulating. That's not much help at all. Neither was another Roman contraceptive method: early tampons. Women gathered little rolls of wool and dipped them in various familiar substances, like olive oil, honey, alum, and lead.
3 Ancient Japanese Society
There are records of Japanese prostitutes making rolls of bamboo paper to place into their cervix, in the hopes of blocking the semen. Otherwise, the Japanese much preferred to use types of condoms to prevent pregnancy. Normally, ancient people would fashion condoms out of animal intestine, animal bladders, or just cloth. These don't sound appealing to create or to use, but depending on the material they could be effective. Although, these kinds of condoms were liable to tear or to fall off. Some men relied on the strength of the material to keep the condom on, while sometimes they were tied on with ribbon, or simply held with his hands. The Japanese were known to take a different approach on condoms. They made a tortoiseshell condom that was used as late as the 1870s! Instead of shell, sometimes the horns of an animal were used. We can't imagine it made for a comfortable experience.
2 Early Islamic Societies
Yep, we're getting into late antiquity here, but you don't want to miss this stuff. The early Muslims had a scientific streak that didn't fail them in the contraceptive department. They used at least three effective methods, but also a great deal more that which were not effective but certainly take the award for most disgusting. Cervical creams and coverings recommended by early Islamic medical professionals could include: ox bile, animal ear wax, elephant dung, lead, pitch (tar), and more.
Surprisingly, pitch may have been an effective contraceptive. Other methods were certainly effective to some degree: rock salt, pulling-out, and a suggestion that the man should seek pleasure but not finish up (although this was not always religiously sanctioned). Despite having some good suggestions, doctors of this culture really emphasized some unpleasant methods for the ladies: smelling gross things; sticking a plant root into her womb; putting pepper into her vagina after sex; or to sneeze quickly, run around, and jump backward seven to nine paces.
1 Medieval Germany
During the Middle Ages, the church in Europe began to try to control people's sexual activity. New values developed around birth control and abortion, condemning either practice in any form (even having sex for pleasure instead of conception began to be included!). However, information about birth control still circulated, if secretly.
A famous poet, Macer, wrote a long poem called "the Virtues of Herbs" where he listed the uses of plants, including those that were thought to produce abortions or prevent fertility. He listed pennyroyal, Italian catnip, cyprus, cabbage wort, sage, and many others as capable of providing a woman with an abortion. He even suggested that a woman take pennyroyal with a "tepid wine" to get the desired effect. Macer listed spearmint and juniper as contraceptives that needed to be apply just before or after sex. How did all of this information get past the Church? Macer made his poem ambiguous, the Church could assume that he was warning women not to take these herbs as they caused abortions, but historians think that this excuse was pretty transparent to most readers.