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Eating Earth

Eating earth (geophagy) is universal. You do it in a refined manner each 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 (JEE-AW'-FA-JY) spans the material-to-spiritual spectrum. Bioregionalists would love a Siberian tribe that once carried small balls of local earth on their wanderings. They nibbled them along the way, the taste a reminder of home. Among Mayan (and now mestizo) communities of Central America, eating clay tablets combines healing, devotional reminders, blessings from Our Lord of Esquipulas (the Black Christ), good fortune, devotion, and pregnancy nutrition (see photos). 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.

Swedish and Finlander grandparents still tell stories of clay bread used as an extender (and perhaps for some nutrition) in famine breads. Among the Ainu people of Japan, a special recipe for clay-lump soup was probably a nutrient supplement, a good-tasting hunger reliever. In Africa especially, but all over the world, women turn to special earths to help provide minerals (especially calcium) during pregnancy. Mende and Kissi women of West Africa gather special earths that have been processed and concentrated by termites (see photos). In Java and Sweden, a special wetland clay filled with near-microscopic invertebrates (Infusoria) is a prized micro-food. To counteract toxins and poisons, the Aymara of Peru made 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/clay breads still survive.

Not all earth eating is great for you. It can calm hunger without satisfying nutritional needs. It can eventually line the intestines and prevent nutrient absorption. It can become an addiction and a form of anorexic suicide. It can disturb the balance of potassium when abused. But by long and honorable tradition, seeking solace or nutrition from eating earth plays a critical cultural role all over the world.

In short, earth eating fulfills a global human desire for famine food, medicine, nutrition, poison buffer, or spiritual reminder. No individual clump needs all these attributes; one fulfilled desire is reward enough from any given piece of the good earth.

The Clay Eaters of Esquipulas

From Mexico and all parts of Central America, one million pilgrims a year climb into the hills of eastern Guatemala to commune with the shrine of the Black Christ, the Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas. The 400-year-old carving, powerful heart of the shrine, fuses both Mayan and adopted religions. The holy clay tablets of Esquipulas have been formed from the springs and quarries surrounding the shrine since before the arrival of Christ. No stage of the process—mining, making, buying, blessing, or eating the holy clay tablets—is unattended by faith.

The clay is typically mined by the men and crafted at home by the women, in a laborious, unmechanized process. After painstaking fabrication, the tablets are marketed by shrine-side vendors and regional wholesalers. It is an economy bringing meagre returns to the poorest of the poor Guatemalan villagers in the hills surrounding the shrine.

The tablets are eaten almost exclusively by women to induce or nurture pregnancy, but are importuned for everything from shipwrecks to divorce. Pilgrims who buy tablets from vendors at the shrine often take them immediately to be blessed at the basilica, clinching their potency.

The clay's components embody pragmatic rewards, and may well rival contemporary pharmaceuticals for calming upset stomachs and providing needed minerals. But for believers, from the miners of the tierra blanca to the final earth eaters, the gestational, dietary, or emotional benefits of these holy tablets lie squarely in their attachment to the shrine. Faith, not empiricism, drives the geophagy behind Esquipulas.