Summer 2001

The Soil Eaters

Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman

In the beginning of the 1970s, the Danish hippie Jacob Holdt hitchhiked his way through the States. Holdt hitchhiked through vast stretches of the country wearing his short-hair wig so as to get lifts more easily and avoid being harassed (this was a time when long-haired men in the South would be shot at from cars). His remarkable ability to open himself to his surroundings meant that his journey was not only geographical but also one that cut through the various social, racial, and political ­strata of the US. His letters to his parents back home were so unbelievable that they sent him a camera to record what he was experiencing. The images were later collected in a book called American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through the American Underclass.

American Pictures exposed an indescribable misery within the borders of the “world’s richest country.” Some of the poorest citizens in this country were in fact eating soil out of hunger. This practice is mentioned in only one passage of the book but nevertheless remains an unforgettable sign of extreme poverty. In North Carolina, Holdt meets a professor in geophagia (soil eating) who describes how widespread the phenomenon is around Wilmington. Holdt himself never saw the soil eaters of North Carolina but when we asked him by email, he writes back that he did witness blacks around the Mississippi River eat clay from the riverbed.

Within this framework, soil eating is poverty and hunger’s most extreme outpost. It is an activity that is charged with a strangely archaic quality where a lack is miraculously turned into a surplus. In his febrile state of hunger, the soil eater transforms the clay of the bed river into filling food. He is set within a hallucinogenic landscape where the very ground he walks on is transformed into nourishment.

For science, geophagia is a hard nut to crack. The phenomenon is located at the intersection of sociology, medicine, and religion, and studies of soil eating need a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach. The delineation and definition of the phenomenon itself follows an interestingly complicated path. First and foremost, science has to define what soil is. The researcher N. C. Bradey makes an attempt in The Nature and Properties of Soil (1974):

A collection of natural bodies which has been synthesized in profile form from a variable mixture of broken and weathered minerals and decaying matter, which covers the earth in a thin layer, and which supplies, when containing the proper amounts of air and water, mechanical support and sustenance for plants.

The next step is to define how the soil will enter the digestive tract. Since soil can be airborne, people who breathe through their mouths can breathe in soil. This is especially relevant in the case of those who live in deserts. The distinction is therefore made between inhaling soil and ingesting it.

Conscious ingestion is assigned the term “pica” in standard medical reference books.1 Pica is defined as “a drive toward eating anything that is not a food substance, especially clay.”2 Some researchers narrow this definition and speak instead of “a perversion of the appetite.”3 Pica is said, for example, to affect pregnant women who can get a sudden and irresistible urge to eat mortar, rubber tires, shavings, or soil. Already here, we see that documented medical cases have mixed with myths and oral stories. Pica is an umbrella term for nine distinct scenarios, each based on one substance that is ingested manically. Geophagia is specifically about soil. The term “pica” is contradictory because, in addition to a “perversion of the appetite,” the concept also refers to the unwitting ingestion of soil as well as ritual and traditional soil eating.

Anemia and the lack of iron have been proposed as causes of geophagia. But treatments with minerals and placebos has not often resulted in patients refraining from ingesting soil. Some researchers have claimed that iron deficiency and anemia are in fact the result of soil ingestion. Other factions within geophagia research point to developmental disturbances and a compulsive persistence of infantile hand to mouth behavior as the explanation of geophagia. The habit of eating soil is often attributed to the poorest regions of the world. But it is not clear if starvation can fully account for geophagia. It looks as though in some countries, geophagia is part of a cultural pattern among certain groups. In Ghana, for example, clay is sold as medication, and in Guatemala, clay briquettes with cathedral designs on them are sold to pregnant mothers. What makes geophagia even more complicated is that clay can in fact have a benign effect on different kinds of stomach problems and poisonings. In the US, the majority of geophagia cases have been among the poor black population in the south, but there have also been cases in New York City. Two different researchers (W. H. Crosby and R. P. Wedeen) propose the surprising theory that soil eating can no longer be connected to specific socioeconomic factors but has spread to a larger, less definable segment of the northern urban population in the US.

In 1958, a global study of geophagia titled Geophagical Customs was presented by Swedish researchers Anell and Lagerkrantz. Their book presents another account of soil eating’s relation to lack of minerals and to poverty. Their four categories of soil eating do include hunger as one factor but the other three address soil as a spice and as a delicacy; as a medicine; and as the substance of ritual ingestion. Anell and Lagerkrantz claimed that in Africa specially, geophagia was widespread and fulfilled a variety of functions. It is thought to cure syphilis and diarrhea; in some regions, young girls eat soil at the onset of puberty; pregnant women eat soil to guarantee a painless birth and dark skin for the child. In certain areas, criminals are forced to eat soil. The sacred earth is supposed to administer justice—if the condemned criminal is in fact guilty, he will fall sick or go mad.

But what is at stake in which perspective on a phenomenon (soil eating, in this case) becomes dominant? Why argue at all about such definitions? The answer is that the “problem”will be handled in very different ways based on which point of view gains support.

From the biologistic point of view, a diagnosed disease means a whole chain of preventive measures and consequences. The phenomenon is placed within a clinical universe. Traditions, rites, and psychological factors are transformed into the consequences of physical disturbances. If an extreme socio-anthropological point of view dominates, the corporeal and the biological will be either “overcome” or integrated within culture, myths, rites, and traditions. The behavior will be stamped as cultural. From a third perspective—which we could call Jacob Holdt’s perspective—the entire phenomenon can be reduced to hunger, which is itself a result of poverty. Social existence determines all of a person’s existence. Eating soil—in a strange way a very basic activity—eludes all these definitions. It is the hungry’s last desperate attempt at assuaging their hunger. At the same time, extreme hunger does not automatically trigger a reflex to eat soil. In descriptions of the origins of geophagia, there is a complicated weave of sociology (traditions, rites), psychology (hand to mouth behavior), politics (poverty), and biologism (manifestation of deficiency).4 We are in the space where culture and disease overlap.

While walking through the streets of Johannesburg last year, doctors Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss were surprised ­to find small briquettes of red soil being sold among food items at the market. The soil was bought by young women as natural medicine. They wrote a report in a medical journal.5 In the report, they want to alert South African doctors that geophagia is widespread in the region. They write that this anomaly—if it is an anomaly—cannot be understood from the explanatory perspectives offered: extreme poverty, culturally sanctioned behavior, or eating disorder.

But the questions can never be answered. The researchers go out on the streets. They discover something astounding: humans are engaging in unusual activities. There are people out there eating soil. They alert their colleagues but cannot explain it. The diagnosis vaporizes. Geophagia slides back into myth.

Translated by Sina Najafi

  1. In her book Nostalgia (Stockholm: Bonnier, 2001) on the history of nostalgia within medical history, Karin Johannisson writes that in the 18th and 19th centuries pica was classified in a category of illnesses termed “oddities” or “misdirected or abnormal desire.” Pica is here aligned with bulimia, panic attacks, various phobias, nymphomania, and satyriasis. The same framework is also used in Frenchman François Boissier de Sauvage’s enormous Nosologica Methodica (1768) which lists 2,400 diseases, and in Englishman William Cullen’s A Methodological System of Nosology from 1808.
  2. See Taber Medical Dictionary (Thomas: 1993).
  3. P. Lanzkowsky, “Investigation into the Etiology and Treatment of Pica,” Archives of Disease in Childhood , nr. 34, 1959, p. 140.
  4. We have to a large extent followed Steven L. Simon’s overview article “Soil Ingestion by Humans: Review of History, Data, and Etiology with Application to Risk Assessment of Radioactively Contaminated Soil,” Health Physics, vol. 74, nr. 6, (June 1998).
  5. Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, “Geophagia: A Forgotten Diagnosis?,” South African Journal of Surgery, vol 38, nr. 2, (May 2000), p. 42.

Magnus Bärtås is an artist and writer based in Stockholm. Bärtås has previously been on the editorial board of the Swedish magazines 90TAL and Index. He teaches at the University College of Arts and Crafts in Stockholm and is also a lecturer and examiner at the art colleges in Umeå and Gothenburg.

Fredrik Ekman is a lyricist and writer based in Stockholm. His articles have appeared in Svenska Dagbladet, Allt om Böcker, BLM, and Dagens Nyheter. Ekman was previously a member of the editorial board of the Swedish cultural magazine 90TAL. His musical works have toured in Europe.