I watched her from the kitchen window. Clawing away at the crusty anthill in the backyard. She cupped the red earth in her hand and threw it into the back of her mouth. She chewed, sucked, and then swallowed, satisfied. I was twelve years old and growing up in Zambia. I had a western upbringing which convinced me my pregnant aunt was indulging in some occult behaviour. But now I am older and wiser or at least more knowledgeable and know the name of this practice – geophagia: “the practice of eating earthy or soil-like substances such as clay, and chalk.” Depending on who you ask, it can be considered an eating disorder, a culturally acceptable practice, or a response to famine. It is common in parts of Africa, India, and southern parts of USA. It was first documented in medicine in 370 BC in ancient Greece and Rome by Hippocrates:
“If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.”
Geophagia is also common in the animal kingdom and is well documented in birds. Scientists speculate this behaviour confers an evolutionary advantage. However, despite human beings from Homo habilis to Homo sapien eating dirt for over two millions years the benefits and harms are still much debated.
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