The Art and Science of Eating Dirt

Eating earth, or geophagy, (jee-oh-fay-jee) is universal. You do it in a refined manner every time you chug Kaopectate, Di-Gel, Rolaids, Mylanta, Maalox, or Donnagel-PG. In essence, diarrhea and acid-stomach upset are keeping alive a now culturally concealed taste for earth. In these products, the active ingredients of clays (kaolin) or certain earths (calcium carbonate) have been isolated from the earth mass, but that slippery, earthy feel still stays in the mouth.

Geophagy spans the material-to-spiritual spectrum. Bioregionalists would love the Siberian tribe that carried small balls of local earth on their wanderings, nibbling them along the way, the taste a reminder of home. It has been said in Sri Lanka for 60,000 years that the sole food of Brahma (the originator of all being) was the earth itself.

Every year, a million Central American pilgrims climb into the eastern Guatemalan hills to commune with the shrine of the Black Christ, Our Lord of Esquipulas. From vendors they buy holy clay tablets mined by the men from quarries surrounding the shrine then laboriously crafted by the women at home. The tablets are eaten mostly by women to ensure a safe pregnancy but are taken for everything from shipwrecks to divorce. The clay’s components may well rival contemporary pharmaceuticals for calming upset stomachs and providing minerals, but for the believers, faith drives geophagy.

Swedish and Finnish grandparents may tell stories of clay used as a bread extender during famines. Among Japan’s Ainu people, a recipe for clay-lump soup was probably a nutrient supplement. In Africa, women turn to special earths to help provide minerals (particularly calcium) during pregnancy. The Mende and Kissi women of West Africa gather special earths that have been processed and concentrated by termites, which concentrate the levels of beneficial minerals. In Java and Sweden, a wetland clay filled with near-microscopic invertebrates (Infusoria) is a prized microfood. To counteract toxins and poisons, the Aymara of Peru make a neutralizing clay dip for feral potatoes that belong to the poisonous nightshade family. “Oak peoples” who eat large quantities of acorns can either leach them or mix them with clay to neutralize the tannic acids. From California to Sardinia, acorn-meal-and-clay breads still survive.

Not all earth eating is great for you. It can calm hunger without satisfying energy needs, block the intestines and prevent nutrient absorption if eaten in excess, or become an addiction that amounts to a form of anorexic suicide. When it’s abused, earth eating can also disturb one’s potassium balance. But by long and honorable tradition, seeking solace and meeting mineral needs by eating earth plays a critical cultural role all over the world; geophagy fulfills a human desire for famine food, medicine, nutrition, poison buffer, or spiritual reminder. No individual clump of earth needs all these attributes; one fulfilled desire is reward enough from any given piece of the good earth.

For products that use clays for internal consumption, contact:

Good N Natural
90 Orville Dr.,
Bohemia, NY 11716

7110 Jackson St.,
Paramount, CA 90723

Yerba Prima, Inc.
740 Jefferson Av.,
Ashland, OR 97520

John M. Hunter, professor of geography, community health science, and African studies at Michigan State University, assisted with this article. From Whole Earth Review (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.

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