Known throughout the world as the act of eating dirt, geophagia was noted as early as 460–370 BC by Hippocrates, who wrote about the desire of pregnant women to engage in the practice. Geophagia, first described as a medical issue in 1563 as a form of pica (intentionally eating things that have no nutrient value), is practiced on almost every continent.
African slaves are thought to have brought the practice to the New World. Soil or clay eating later became a cultural tradition among southern, rural African American women and children. Geophagia is most often seen in pregnant and postpartum women. Dirt eating is reported among whites as well as African Americans, generally in the poorest areas of the South, though scholars debate the practice’s connection to socioeconomic or educational status. Elders teach younger generations geophagia.
Psychological, economic, social, cultural, and biological or medical factors are recorded reasons for the practice of dirt eating, although the debate continues. Some people simply find that dirt tastes good, describing it as sour and smooth. Biological factors include eating dirt as a filler to suppress hunger; as a general health practice; as a medicine to satisfy iron, calcium, and/or zinc deficiencies (although some researchers dispute this); as a pregnancy craving; as a treatment for disease; as a method to absorb toxins; as a way to settle the stomach, especially during pregnancy; and as a means of softening or lightening skin. From an evolutionary standpoint, eating dirt may have been a way to adapt to the environment. Eating soil is also thought to strengthen the immune system.
The South has known dirt hills where diggings are visible. Dirt is dug from below the surface: deeper soil is considered to have fewer parasites. The dirt ideally should be smooth and without grit and usually is gray with red streaks when dug from the hillside. The soil is spread on a cookie sheet, seasoned with vinegar or other flavorings, and then baked in a wood-burning oven for an hour or smoked in the chimney.
After preparation, dirt is sour with an acidic taste, crunchy, and smooth; it melts in the mouth like chocolate. Some southerners mail dirt to family members in the North, and prepared dirt can be purchased on the Internet. White clay contains kaolin and tastes like aspirin. Kaolin is similar to medicines routinely used as antacids and antidiarrheal treatments.
Some scientists consider dirt eating harmful as well as a psychological disorder, and the amount eaten and the consequences of such consumption determine the degree of pathology. Problems associated with the practice include the ingestion of microorganisms, worm infestation, ingestion of lead or other toxins, altered electrolytes, intestinal obstruction, and constipation. The kaolin in dirt can be harmful during pregnancy, possibly causing low birth weight and mental disabilities, although research has not confirmed these effects. Dirt eaters may not get the nutrients needed if dirt is replacing food. Geophagia may decrease iron and zinc in the body but supplement calcium. Soil in populated areas may contain toxins, but in rural areas, the risk of harm from pollution is considered less threatening.
In 1942 it was reported that as many as 25 percent of African American children in one Mississippi county engaged in dirt eating; as recently as 1971, eating dirt was common in the state. The practice is now disappearing, although some people persist in private to avoid social stigma. In some cases, people suffering from pica eat starch or soda rather than dirt.
- Tom Corwin, August Chronicle (March 1999)
- Dorothy Dickens and Robert N. Ford, American Sociological Review (February 1942)
- Cynthia R. Ellis, EMedicine from WebMD website, http://emedicine.medscape.com
- Dennis Frate, Mississippi Folklife (Fall 1999)
- Hilda Hertz, Social Forces (March 1947)
- Marc Lallanilla, ABC News (3 October 2005)
- Matt Rosenberg, About.com website, www.about.com
- Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (March 2002)
- Patrick Yao, “A Case of Geophagia,” UCLA Department of Medicine (May 2007)