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  • Alexander von Humboldt on Geography

    From Issue 55, Spring 1999, of the South American Explorer:

    Source: Humboldt, A., and A. Bonpland. 1821. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, During the Years 1799-1804. AMS Press, Inc., New York, 1966.

    The great German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was fascinated by the practice of some native American tribes populating the torrid zone to eat earth, mostly from want, but sometimes by choice or custom. What follows is an account by Humboldt himself of the geophagy of the Otomacs, a tribe inhabiting the banks of the Orinoco River. The setting is in what is now Venezuela, c. 1800.


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    The situation of the mission of Uruana is extremely picturesque. The little Indian village is placed at the foot of a lofty granitic mountain. Rocks everywhere appear in the form of pillars above the forest, rising higher than the tops of the higher trees. The Orinoco nowhere displays a more majestic aspect here, than when contemplated from the house of the missionary, Fray Ramon Bueno. It is more than five thousand meters wide, and runs without any winding, like a vast canal, straight toward the east. Two long and narrow islands (Isla de Uruana and Isla Vieja de la Manteca) contribute to give extent to the bed of the river; the two banks are parallel, and we cannot call it divided into different branches. The mission is inhabited by the Otomacs, a tribe in the rudest state, and presenting one of the most extraordinary physiological phenomena. The Otomacs eat earth; that is, they swallow every day, during several months, very considerable quantities, to appease hunger, without injuring their health. I also found traces of this vitiated appetite among the Guamoes; and between the confluence of the Meta and the Apure, where everybody speaks of geophagy as of a thing anciently known. I shall here confine myself to an account of what we ourselves saw, or heard from the missionary, whom an unhappy fatality had doomed to live for twelve years among the savage and turbulent tribe of the Otomacs.

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    The inhabitants of Uruana belong to those nations of the savannas, who, more difficult to civilize than the nations of the forest, have a decided aversion to cultivate the land, and live almost exclusively on hunting and fishing. They are omnivorous animals of the highest degree; and therefore, the other Indians, who consider them as barbarians, have a common saying: “Nothing is so disgusting that an Otomac will not eat it.” While the waters of the Orinoco and its tributaries are low, the Otomac subsist on fish and turtles. The former they kill with surprising dexterity, by shooting them with an arrow when they appear at the surface of the water. When the rivers swell, which occurs periodically in every part of the torrid zone, fishing ceases almost entirely. It is then as difficult to procure fish in the rivers which have become deeper, as when you are sailing on the open sea. At the period of these inundations, which last two or three months, the Otomacs swallow a prodigious quantity of earth. We found heaps of balls in their huts, piled up in pyramids three or four feet high. These balls were five or six inches in diameter. The earth, which the Otomacs eat, is a very fine and unctuous clay, of a yellowish gray color; and, being slightly baked in the fire, the hardened crust has a tint inclining to red, owing to the iron oxides which are mingled with it. The Otomacs do not eat every kind of clay indifferently; they choose the alluvial beds or strata that contain the most unctuous earth, and the smoothest to the feel. We examined the balls of earth and found no trace of any organic substance, whether oily or farinaceous. The savages regard everything that appeases hunger as nourishing; therefore, when you inquire of an Otomac on what he subsists during the two months when the river is highest, he shows you his balls of clayey earth. This he calls his principal food; for at this period he can seldom procure a lizard, a root of fern, or a dead fish swimming at the surface of the water. If the Indian eats earth from want during two months, he does not less regale himself with it during the rest of the year. Every day in the season of drought, when fishing is most abundant, he scrapes his balls of poya, and mingles a little clay with his other aliment. What is most surprising is that the Otomacs do not become lean by swallowing such quantities of earth; they are, on the contrary, extremely robust, and far from having the belly tense and puffed up. The missionary Fray Ramon Bueno asserts that he never observed any alteration in the health of the natives at the period of the great risings of the Orinoco.


    The following are the facts in all their simplicity, which we were able to ascertain. The Otomacs during some months eat daily three quarter of a pound of clay slightly hardened by fire, without their health being sensibly affected by it. They moisten the earth afresh, when they are going to swallow it. It has not been possible to verify hitherto with precision how much nutritious vegetable or animal matter the Indians take in a week at the same time; but it is certain that they attribute the sensation of satiety, which they feel, to the clay, and not to the wretched aliments which they take with it occasionally.

    I observed everywhere within the torrid zone, in a great number of individuals, children, women, and sometimes even full grown men, an inordinate and almost irresistible desire of swallowing earth; not an alkaline or calcareous earth, to neutralize (as it is vulgarly said) acid juices, but a fat clay, unctuous, and exhaling a strong smell. It is often found necessary to tie the children’s hands, or to confine them, to prevent their eating earth, when the rain ceases to fall. At the village of Banco, on the bank of the river Magdalena, I saw the Indian women who make pottery continually swallowing great pieces of clay.

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    These women were not in a state of pregnancy; and they affirmed that “earth is an aliment, which they do not find hurtful.” In other American tribes people soon fall sick, and waste away, when they yield too much to this mania of eating earth. We found at the Mission of San Borja an Indian child of the Guahiba nation, who was as thin as a skeleton. The mother informed us that the little girl was reduced to this lamentable state of atrophy in consequence of a disorderly appetite, having refused during four months to take almost any food other than clay. Yet San Borja is only twenty-five leagues from Uruana, inhabited by the Otomacs, who, from the effect no doubt of a habit progressively acquired, swallow the poya without exhibiting any pernicious effects. Father Gumilla asserts that the Otomacs purge themselves with oil, or rather with the melted fat of the crocodile, when they feel any gastric obstructions; but the missionary whom we found among them was little disposed to confirm this assertion. It may be asked why the mania of eating earth is much more rare in the frigid and temperate zones than in the torrid; and why in Europe it is found only among women in a state of pregancy, and sickly children.

      In the Indian archipelago, at the island of Java, Mr. Labillardière saw, between Surabaya and Samarang, little square and reddish cakes exposed to sale. These cakes, called taanampo, were cakes of clay, slightly baked, which the natives eat with appetite. The attention of physiologists, since my return from the Orinoco, having been powerfully fixed on this phenomena of geophagy, Mr. Leschenault (one of the naturalists of the expedition to the Southern Lands under Captain Baudin) has published some curious details on the taanampo, or ampo, of the Javanese. “The reddish and somewhat ferruginous clay,” he says, “which the inhabitants of Java are fond of eating occasionally, is spread on a plate of iron, and baked, after having been rolled into little cylinders in the form of the bark of cinnamon. In this state, it takes the name of ampo, and it is sold in the public markets. In general, it is only the Javanese women who eat the ampo, either in the time of their pregnancy, or in order to grow thin; the want of plumpness being a kind of beauty in this country. The use of this earth is fatal to health; the women lose their appetite imperceptibly, and no longer take without disgust a small quantity of food; but the desire of becoming lean, and of preserving a slender shape, can brave these dangers and maintain the credit of the ampo.”

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    When we reflect on the whole of these facts, we perceive that this disorderly appetite for clayey, magnesian, and calcareous earth, is most common among the people of the torrid zone; that it is not always a cause of disease; and that some tribes eat earth from choice, while others like the Otomacs eat it from want, and to appease hunger. A great number of physiological phenomena prove that a temporary cessation of hunger may be produced, without the substances that are submitted to the organs of digestion being, properly speaking, nutritive.The earth of the Otomacs, composed of alumina and silica, furnished probably nothing, or almost nothing to the composition of the organs of man. These organs contain lime and magnesia in the bones, in the lymph of the thoraxic duct, in the coloring matter of blood, and in white hairs; they afford very smallquantities of silica in black hair; and but a few atoms of alumina in the bones, though this is contained abundantly in the greater part of vegetable matters, which form part of our nourishment. It is not the same with man as with animated beings placed lower in the scale of organization. In man, assimilation is exerted only on those substances that enter essentially into the composition of the bones, the muscles, and the medullary matter of the nerves and brain. Plants, on the contrary, draw from the soil the salts that are found accidentally mixed in it; and their fibrous texture varies according to the nature of the earths that predominate in the spots which they inhabit. An object well worthy of research, and which has longed fixed my attention, is the small number of simple subtances that enter into the composition of animated beings, and which alone appear fitted to maintain what we call the chemical movement of vitality.

    When the missions of the Orinoco shall become more frequented by enlightened travelers, the number of days will be determined with precision, during which the Otomacs can subsist without adding to the clay they swallow any other aliment from the vegetable or animal kingdom. A considerable portion of gastric and pancreatic juice must be employed to digest, or rather, to envelope and expel with the fecal matter so great a quantity of clay. We may conceive that the secretion of these juices is augmented by the presence of earths in the stomach and intestines; but how does it happen that such abundant secretions do not cause at length a feeling of exhaustion?

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    The state of perfect health enjoyed by the Otomacs during the time when they use little muscular exercise and are subject to so extraordinary a regimen is a phenomenon difficult to explain. It can be attributed only to a habit, prolonged from generation to generation. Man can accustom himself to an extraordinary abstinence, and find it but little painful, if he employs tonic or stimulating substances, or if he supplies his stomach from time to time with earthy, insipid substances, that are not in themselves fit for nutrition. Like man in a savage state, some animals also, when pressed by hunger in winter, swallow clay or other friable steatites. Mr. Bonpland and I observed in a crocodile, eleven feet long, which we dissected at Batalley, on the banks of the Rio Magdalena, that the stomach of this reptile contained fish half digested, and rounded fragments of granite three of four inches in diameter. It is difficult to admit that the crocodiles swallow these stony masses accidentally, for they do not catch fish with their lower jaw resting on the ground at the bottom of the river. The Indians have framed the absurd hypothesis, that these indolent animals like to augment their weight, that they may have less trouble in diving. I rather think that they load their stomach with large pebbles to excite an abundant secretion of gastric juice. The experiments of Mr. Magendie render this explanation extremely probable. With respect to the habit of the granivorous birds, particularly the gallinaceæ and ostriches, of swallowing sand and small pebbles, it has been hitherto attributed to an instinctive desire to accelerating the trituration of the aliments in a muscular and thick stomach.