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Craving Earth

Craving Earth: Understanding Pica--the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk

Sera L. Young
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Craving Earth
    Book Description:

    Humans have eaten earth, on purpose, for more than 2,300 years. They also crave starch, ice, chalk, and other unorthodox items of food. Some even claim they are addicted and "go crazy" without these items, but why?

    Sifting through extensive historical, ethnographic, and biomedical findings, Sera L. Young creates a portrait of pica, or nonfood cravings, from humans' earliest ingestions to current trends and practices. In engaging detail, she describes the substances most frequently consumed and the many methods (including the Internet) used to obtain them. She reveals how pica is remarkably prevalent (it occurs in nearly every human culture and throughout the animal kingdom), identifies its most avid partakers (pregnant women and young children), and describes the potentially healthful and harmful effects. She evaluates the many hypotheses about the causes of pica, from the fantastical to the scientific, including hunger, nutritional deficiencies, and protective capacities. Never has a book examined pica so thoroughly or accessibly, merging absorbing history with intimate case studies to illuminate an enigmatic behavior deeply entwined with human biology and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51789-8
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    • CHAPTER ONE What on Earth?
      (pp. 3-19)

      MAMA SHARIFA eats chunks from the earthen wall of her outdoor kitchen in Zanzibar, while in Washington, D.C., Pat crunches through a ten-pound bag of ice from 7-Eleven every day. In New Delhi, Simran starts her morning with a handful of uncooked rice, and in Mississippi, Tanya eats Argo cornstarch, but only after her husband has gone to work. In Guatemala, Carlita nibbles little blocks of clay with a Virgin Mary pressed into them, while in California, D’angela buys ten boxes of chalkboard chalk for snacking whenever she can get to a Walmart. What is the common denominator? These are...

    • CHAPTER TWO A Biocultural Approach: A Holistic Way to Study Pica
      (pp. 20-31)

      SO BEGINS the 1906 ethnography “Earth-Eating and the Earth-Eating Habit in India” (Hooper and Mann 1906:250). It is a fitting quote to open this chapter because it highlights why geophagy (and pica in general) merits “extended investigations” or the careful thought process that is outlined in this chapter. If pica were some seldom seen anomaly, like a puppy with five legs or octuplets, we could afford to expend less brainpower on it. But because it is found “among the peoples of every continent,” especially among the most vulnerable segments, and is associated with both positive and negative health outcomes, we...

    • CHAPTER THREE Medicine You Can Walk On
      (pp. 32-45)

      NOT ALL GEOPHAGY is pica. Inadvertently swallowing a clod of dirt in your freshly picked arugula or politely smacking your lips on your son’s mud pie are indeed geophagy, but pica are they not. You’ll recall from chapter 1 that one component of the definition of pica is that it involves strong cravings. Thus, because neither of these instances includes a desire for earth, they would not be considered pica, although they are both geophagy.

      This chapter is about non-pica geophagy in the field of medicine. How is that germane to a book about pica? Most importantly, understanding the healing...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Religious Geophagy: Sacredness You Can Swallow
      (pp. 46-57)

      WE HAVE seen that although the extraction of terra sigillata on Lemnos occurred according to religious traditions, it was esteemed by physicians and princes neither because of the divinity of those who extracted it nor the hallowed ground from which it came. Instead, it was highly regarded because of its medicinal powers. There are, however, a number places in which earth is ingested or topically applied because of its purported religious properties. This chapter contains stories of modern-day religious geophagy from around the world, in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and hoodoo. It may at first seem tangential to the main storyline,...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Poisons and Pathogens
      (pp. 58-66)

      AS WE saw in the last chapter, earth clearly has a place in the treatment of both physical and metaphysical problems. But earth and other pica substances have also been suggested to be the cause of a number of sicknesses, including anemia, poisoning, and parasites. In this chapter, we return to what is clearly demarcated pica behavior, the purposive ingestion of craved non-food substances, and explore its purported negative consequences from a much more biomedical point of view.

      Pica is associated with anemia far more frequently than it is with any other negative health condition. I would estimate that there...


    • CHAPTER SIX Dismissal and Damnation: A Historical Perspective on the Purported Causes of Pica
      (pp. 69-87)

      WE SPEND a lot of effort avoiding dirt. We scrub under our nails, launder our clothes, rinse our vegetables, and sweep the floor. It is therefore understandably jarring to hear that some people seek out a substance whose presence others try to eliminate.¹ If cleanliness is next to godliness, where does that put geophagists in the divine order?

      Indeed, the stigma of eating earth is reinforced by the Old Testament. After all, geophagy was among the first (Judeo-Christian) divine punishments. When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, Adam was punished with hard work, Eve with labor pains,...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Pica in Response to Food Shortage
      (pp. 88-96)

      OUR DIET is intimately associated with the earth. According to an ancient Chinese proverb, we owe our very existence “to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” Or, as Tom Robbins puts it, “Dirt is the mother o’ lunch” (1984:260). Implicit is that the earth yields food, not that the earth is food. But some have suggested that there is a less circuitous path between the land and our sustenance: direct consumption.

      In many creation stories, earth was all there was to eat at the beginning of the world. A touching Polynesian legend from the Cook...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Pica as a Micronutrient Supplement
      (pp. 97-118)

      IN THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Rose of Sharon, pregnant and husbandless, is pessimistic about the outcome of her pregnancy; she and her family are enduring the dust bowl and the Great Depression, among other hardships (Steinbeck 1967:368). As she complains to her mother about how she wishes there was milk for her to drink, she pops something in her mouth.

      “I see you nibblin’ on somepin. What you eatin’?”


      “Come on, what you nibblin’ on?”

      “Jus’ a piece a slack lime. Foun’ a big hunk.”

      “Why, tha’s jus’ like eatin’ dirt.”

      “I kinda feel like I wan’ it.”


    • CHAPTER NINE Pica to Protect and Detoxify
      (pp. 119-135)

      THE FINAL adaptive hypothesis is the protection-detoxification hypothesis. Under this hypothesis, pica is a protective behavior, one that shields us from the harmful items we ingest. This mechanism is dramatically illustrated by the plight of an English prisoner sentenced to death in 1581 for his thieving ways:

      One called Wendel Thumblardt was by our Lieutenant of Langenburg for certaine fellonies imprisoned, who being examined by our Justices confessed himself guilty of a great number of robberies: And therefore brought to the barre was condemned to bee hanged. Being yet deteined in prison, and coming to his eare that there was...

    • CHAPTER TEN Putting the Pica Pieces Together
      (pp. 136-140)

      IN THIS book, it has been my intention to answer Mama Khadija’s question (cf. preface) by way of guiding you through the centuries of history, range of opinion, and myriad of available data about pica. As we have seen, it is a rich and multifaceted behavior; it spans the centuries and the continents, influencing, and being influenced by, both cultural expectations and biological constraints and opportunities. In this final chapter, I’d like to take a step back and look at what we know from a more global perspective. This, in turn, makes it possible to identify gaps in our knowledge....

  7. APPENDIX A: Notable Moments in the History of Pica
    (pp. 141-142)
  8. APPENDIX B: Prevalence of Pica Among Representative Populations of Pregnant Women (n=47)
    (pp. 143-146)
  9. APPENDIX C: Prevalence of Pica Among Representative Populations of Children (n=11)
    (pp. 147-148)
  10. APPENDIX D: Pica in Literature
    (pp. 149-160)
  11. APPENDIX E: Association Between Pica and Iron Deficiency and/or Anemia in Cross-Sectional Studies (n=28)
    (pp. 161-166)
  12. APPENDIX F: Association Between Pica and Zinc Deficiency in Cross-Sectional Studies (n=6)
    (pp. 167-168)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 171-182)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 183-186)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 187-214)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 215-216)
  17. Index
    (pp. 217-228)