To the Editor:
I enjoyed Victor Ponce's piece on Alexander von Humboldt's noticing
that the Otomac Indians of the Orinoco enjoyed eating earth
("Alexander von Humboldt on Geophagy," issue 55, Spring 1999).
There is a more recent example of a tribe that also eats dirt. (No, not the
Hustler variety!). In November 1953, when Orlando and Claudio
Villas Boas made contact with the Mentuktire (a Kayapó tribe, then
known as Txukarramãe) on the Jarina tributary of the Xingu in central
Brazil, they noticed the fearsome warriors pausing during their march to scoop
up handfuls of earth. This confirmed what the Villas Boas had heard about
the warlike tribe. When they reached their village, they found that earth
played a large part in these people's diet.
The brothers assumed that the lumps of earth were pieces of
termite mounds that the Indians devoured for the tasty and protein-rich
insects--as the Yanomami also do. But when the British film maker
Adrian Cowell was with these Kayapó a few years later, his friend
Rauni suddenly sat on a river bank and popped two large lumps of
sand into his mouth. Cowell noticed that when Rauni drank from
a puddle he stirred as much mud as possible into his drink.
When Cowell asked Rauni what is was like, the Indian said it was lovely.
So the intrepid Englishman tried a lump of earth. He found is
"unexpectedly easy to swallow and in consistency and taste very much
like the breakfast food which it would be unwise to name." (The Heart of
the Forest, p. 236).
Eating earth cannot be all bad. The Mentuktire are tremendously fit,
and Rauni is a great character in the history of the Xingu.
(By the way, Adrian Cowell has just made a new television series
about uncontacted Brazilian tribes. I hear that it is as brilliant
as his prize-winners "The Tribe that Hides from Man" and "The Decade of
I'm glad to see that the Club and magazine are flourishing. Congratulations!