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On June 6, 1800, nearly a year into his scientific journey through South America, Alexander von Humboldt arrived at a mission on the Orinoco River called La Concepción de Uruana. It was a stunning site. The village sat at the foot of granite mountains, amidst huge pillars of stone that rose above the forest. Weeks before, Humboldt had seen mysterious etchings on the summits of such rocks—painted, the natives told him, by ancestors carried up there by the waters of a great flood.

Although weakened by bouts of fever and hunger, Humboldt was in fine spirits. In the preceding months he had watched the Leonid meteor shower fill the sky, experienced his first earthquake, and confirmed the communication of the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers through the Casiquiare Canal. He had collected electric eels and watched the dissection of a manatee. If at times the mosquitoes were so thick as to obscure the horizon and prevent his reckoning of latitude, or if other times ant hordes filled his canoe, he pushed on, spurred, he wrote, by an uncertain longing “for what is distant and unknown.”

Humboldt and his botanist companion Aimé Bonpland (and Indian servants, and pressed plants, and jars of preserving spirits, and a chattering menagerie of birds and monkeys in cages on his boats) stayed at Uruana for only one day, conversing with the missionary Fray Ramon Bueno and visiting the Otomac villagers. For all of nature’s splendors, it was the people of Uruana that most caught Humboldt’s attention: “a tribe in the rudest state,” “considered dirty even by their neighbors,” “ugly, savage, vindictive, and passionately fond of fermented liquors,” and yet presenting “one of the most extraordinary physiological phenomena” Humboldt had ever seen. The Otomacs ate earth, “a prodigious quantity” of it. During the two to three months of the rainy season, when the high and turbulent waters of the river made fishing difficult, they claimed to eat nothing but.

Four years after his return, in the first edition of Aspects of Nature, published in 1808, Humboldt described the particular qualities of the earth, called poya: “a soft, unctuous clay, a true potter’s clay, of a yellowish-gray color,” gathered from specific sites along the Orinoco’s banks. And while Humboldt didn’t watch the Otomacs eat poya himself, he observed the great stores of clay balls that they had provisioned for the winter.

By then, Humboldt was one of the most famous men in Europe, and his report of this peculiar habit didn’t go unnoticed. “This claim has become the subject of a lively dispute,” he wrote, and to bolster his assertions, he cited other examples reported from across the torrid zone: the caouac clay eaten by the “Negroes of Guinea,” the mud cakes called tana ampo sold in Javan markets, the fist-sized pieces of friable steatite loved by the natives of New Caledonia. He had seen women on the banks of the Magdalena River eat their potting clay. Wolves, he wrote, ate clay in winter.

However lurid, the story was more than just a traveler’s yarn about the savages. Humboldt noted natives eating millipedes, Marimonda monkeys, gum resins, ants; he diligently reported stories of cannibalism. But none raised the same physiologic speculation. “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” wrote Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in 1825, the year that the final volume of Humboldt’s Travels was published in France. Indeed, we have long defined ourselves and others by what we do and do not eat, from kashrut dietary restrictions described in Leviticus to the naming of Comanche bands (Kotsoteka—buffalo eaters, Penateka—honey eaters, Tekapwai—no meat) to insults—French frogs, English limeys, German krauts. But poya seemed to beg a different question: what was one to make of people who ate food that wasn’t food at all?

“Is earth capable of being assimilated?” asked Humboldt. “Or is it simply ballast for the stomach, to appease hunger? These are questions I cannot answer.”

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Hello, you misused "beg the question" in the first section. You meant "raise the question."

    Posted by Kyle on Thu 23 Jun 2011

  • Thank you, Kyle. I could not infer the meaning of this line, despite the fact that "beg the question" is almost always used and understood in the informal sense. Moreover, proper grammar in this one instance is critical to my understanding the content of the article as a whole. Without your insight, the article was all Chinese characters and Wingdings to me.

    Without persnickety linguistic prescription, we'd all speak in Jabberwocky. Imagine that! Your know-it-all is truly a service to English speakers everywhere.

    By the way, great article!

    Posted by Fayknaim on Thu 23 Jun 2011

  • In reply to Fayknaim, I'm sorry your pedantry almost stood in the way of your comprehending this superb article.

    Of course, you didn't mean it literally. You didn't mean that you didn't understand the phrase; you understood it well enough. You just wanted to make your pedantry explicit and public, even if under a fayk naim. Thanks for that, I'm sure, we're all very impressed.

    Posted by David on Sat 25 Jun 2011

  • Aw, c'mon David. I enjoyed Fayknaim's post

    Posted by jj on Sun 26 Jun 2011

  • Thanks for this nice bit of work. No clay was required to enjoy or digest it. ;^)

    hiho

    Posted by Mark on Sun 26 Jun 2011

  • Would people who have have an inordinate need to eat antacids be said to have pica? I had a roommate in college who consumed more Tums than could possibly have been medically necessary.

    Posted by Dax on Tue 26 Jul 2011

  • In researching my book on alcoholism I came across a report h suggesting that many alcoholics were "pica babies", i.e., they ate strange stuff as kids.

    Posted by JamesG on Fri 29 Jul 2011

  • Very interesting article. I recently have begun studying Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine). Ayurveda has a long history of eating clay for detoxification as the clay is believed to leach heavy metals out of the body.

    It seems that we Westerners still have plenty to learn from ancient and traditional practices.

    Posted by Katharine on Tue 23 Aug 2011

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About the Author

Daniel Mason is the author of The Piano Tuner and A Far Country, both published by Vintage. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Fall 2010 issue, The City.

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