Victor M. Ponce, geophagy, Alexander von Humboldt, John Hemming

This letter appeared in South American Explorer, 56 (Summer 1999).

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 Destruction.")

I'm glad to see that the Club and magazine are flourishing. Congratulations!

Best wishes,

John Hemming