The practice of eating dirt is known today as geophagy and it originates from antiquity. Eating dirt and clay was used as a cure for a number of ailments, but the most common were upset stomachs and poisoning. In 1581, Wendel Thumblardt of Germany was sentenced to death by hanging for a series of robberies he was involved in (Quackery 115). He remembered having heard of a miracle poison remedy known as terra sigillata or sealed earth and made a deal with the prince of the district (Quackery 115). He was to be given the strongest poison available and then given the earth tablets. The deal was that if he survived being poisoned, he would be allowed to live. This proposal was highly regarded by the prince of the district because high officials at this time in Europe often concerned themselves with being murdered by rivals through the use of poison (Quackery 115). Wendel was given a mercury concoction and then drank wine with dissolved earth tablets (Quackery 116). Although he suffered a lot of discomfort and pain, Wendel lived through this ordeal and was released.
The tablets were typically made of tightly compacted dirt or clay that was dried until hard. The patient could then dissolve the tablet in something or chew on it outright.
There were periods in history where earth tablets were hot commodities and could serve both medical and religious purposes. Some salesmen were able to control the dirt market by claiming that only tablets with a special insignia had curative properties (Quackery 120). Popularity slowly died out with the fall of the classical world and much of this practice has since been forgotten (Quackery 119). This outdated treatment is not to be confused with pica, an eating disorder where individuals find themselves eating things with little to no nutritional value. Sometimes women, especially pregnant women, can experience cravings for dirt because of a mineral deficiency of some sort. Some soils and clays can contain varying amounts of copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, but I am in no way suggesting that you eat a shovelful tonight for dinner. There are a lot of health risks that go along with eating dirt and some complications can include parasites, heavy metal poisoning, gastrointestinal damage, hyperkalemia (high potassium), and constipation (Healthline). Eating dirt can become an extremely addictive activity that can sometimes require professional help.
If that didn’t make you grateful for modern antacids and a decline in the popularity of poisoning then I don’t know what will!
Until Next Time
- Kang, Lydia and Nate Pedersen. Quackery, A Brief History of the Worst Ways To Cure Everything. Workman Publishing: New York, 2017.
- Raypole, Crystal “Is It Harmful to Eat Dirt, and Why Do Some People Do It?” Healthline. 20 August, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/eating-dirt.