How did humans control population growth before the Contraceptive Pill was invented?

There may be just one basic way to conceive a child, but people over the ages have concocted an array of ways not to.

The human race has seen fit to control its numbers for diverse reasons, be it shortages of food in Neolithic times or eugenics in ancient Sparta, and the means to this end have been ingenious, baffling, and bizarre.

In the days of our Paleolithic ancestors it is likely human lives were numbered largely by external factors, over which they had no control.

For one, the mortality rate was extremely high. The population of the world 1 million years ago has been estimated at half a million, and only 3 million in 10,000 B.C., 990,000 years later, suggesting long periods of zero population growth. Disease went unchecked and malnutrition depressed fertility, as well as resulting in infant and child deaths.

The average life span, furthermore, was a fraction of what it is today: in Neanderthal times, 70,000 years ago, only about two strong and cunning persons out of ten reached 30, the age at which many women today begin thinking about a family. Not only were childbearing years reduced, but women in general were few, outnumbered by men three to two. This suggests the practice of infanticide, for surely it would have been the female, the future bearer of unwanted children, who would be killed, rather than the male, a more useful hunter and warrior.

In Paleolithic times, no steps would have been taken by the male to prevent procreation (a situation not unlike that today) because no one realized the male’s role in the creation of new life. But it is possible that women tried to assume a degree of control themselves. As Reay Tannahill points out in Sex in History, women undoubtedly knew a great deal about the medicinal properties of plants and may have ingested herbal and vegetative brews to prevent pregnancy, as various peoples do today. In the central forests of Paraguay, for instance, some women drink an infusion derived from a plant, Stevia rebaudiana, to avoid pregnancy. The Navaho have used a tea of ragleaf Bahia, the Hopi a powder from the root of jack-in-the-pulpit. There is some scientific evidence from experiments with animals that such medicines achieve the desired effect.

If we jump tens of thousands of years to the sophisticated civilization of ancient Egypt, with all its advanced technologies, sciences, and arts, we find that these people were also savvy about sex. They understood that the seminal fluid must be blocked from entering the womb if one did not want to get pregnant. For this purpose they devised some singular recipes, which date from dynastic times.

The Kahun Papyrus advises women to mix crocodile dung with a paste called auyt (as yet unidentified) and to insert this in the vagina, while another prescription calls for a compound of honey and natron (sodium carbonate). The later Papyrus Ebers recommends soaking a lint pad in a mixture of acacia tips and honey and positioning this (no mention of how) at the cervical opening. In this the Egyptian chemists outdid themselves, for we now know that sperm favor alkaline rather than acid conditions and that acacia tips produce lactic acid. This is the active ingredient used in contraceptive jellies today.

Abortion, infanticide, the ingestion of drugs, homosexuality, zoophilia, and coitus interruptus were among the other methods early civilizations used to keep the population in check. This last presented a problem for the Hebrews, however, since the Torah instructs men to be fruitful and multiply. Thus the onus fell on the women, and under certain situations a contraceptive sponge was compulsory: for girls 11-12, nursing mothers, and pregnant women (to avoid a disruptive second conception, which the Hebrews believed could occur). Some wives jumped up and down to get rid of semen. Others drank “the cup of roots”, Alexandrian gum, liquid of alum, and garden crocus, mixed with two cups of beer.

Women fared somewhat worse in ancient Greece, for this civilization, however learned and illustrious, did not look kindly upon them. Their political and legal rights were scarcely better than a slave’s, and in countless instances even the right to live was denied. For many years the Persian and Peloponnesian wars drained the country of its young men, and the balance of the sexes would have tipped heavily toward the female if something had not been done. Here the solution was infanticide. In Sparta, where the goal was a stronger and improved race, feeble infants of both sexes were left to die in the Taygetus Mountains.

For the most part, though, overpopulation was not a problem in Greece. Men’s disdain for women and preference for each other kept population growth down, and the state in Crete encouraged pederasty for precisely this reason. If families did start getting too large, Aristotle advised, Greek women should apply olive oil blended with cedar oil, lead ointment, or frankincense to “that part of the womb in which the seed falls.”

Olive oil was a favorite with the women of Rome, too. Small wonder when one considers some of the other proffered means. Pliny tried to nip the problem in the bud simply by curbing a woman’s sexual desire, enjoining the passionate female to apply mouse dung as a liniment, eat snail excrement or pigeon droppings mixed with oil and wine, or rub her loins with blood from the ticks on a wild black bull. That would do it for the male appetite, if nothing else.

Infanticide by exposure was not made illegal in Rome until the 4th century A.D., and it was generally the girls who suffered more, since the ancient “laws of Romulus” ordered families to raise all boys but only the first-born girl. This of course reduced the number of potential mothers. The problem in Rome became too few rather than too many people. Pestilences of smallpox and measles took a large toll, and the stresses of urban life may have resulted in increased miscarriages and sickness. Reay Tannahill observes, too, that the heavy wine intake in Rome was no aid in increasing the population. When not working, the men were either lounging around in very hot baths or getting loaded, both of which can reduce fertility.

The early Christian Church decided that contraception was a sin and, like much of the other learning of the ancient world, scientific knowledge of it was suppressed and lost for many centuries. The heretical woman thus resorted to amulets, superstition, and magic if she wanted no more children and could not ward off her husband’s advances.

If women’s means of controlling pregnancies throughout history were multifarious, men relied mainly on abstinence or coitus interruptus until the 18th century, when the condom became fashionable. The 16th-century Italian anatomist Gabriel Fallopius is given credit for the invention, initially designed as a protection against syphilis.

Two hundred years later, London brothels and various wholesalers carried the contraceptive, and the notorious Casanova endorsed it “to put the fair sex under shelter from all fear.”