The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

An exploratory study of pica in Sierra Leone


1Sociology, Anthropology, General Studies, American Public University System, 2Conservation Society-Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone, 3National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India, 4Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, 5Department of Anthropology & Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

April 16, 2020 , Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

Geophagy, the deliberate consumption of earth, is a type of pica, which is common among vulnerable populations (e.g., children, pregnant women). Some studies suggest that earth-eating is an adaptive behavior that protects the gastrointestinal tract and supplements micronutrients. Other studies have concluded that geophagy is a non-adaptive behavior. Despite years of scientific inquiry, its causes and consequences remain unknown. Most studies have been conducted in Central and East Africa. We, therefore, sought to fill this knowledge gap by studying geophagy in West Africa. We aimed to characterize the types of substances that are consumed, document perceived motivators for the behavior, and identify cultural practices or beliefs about pica, especially geophagy. We conducted 18 semi-structured interviews with adults in 4 villages in a larger partnership and study focused on community conservation. Participants were 23 to 65 years old; 16 women and two men. Participants reported eating a variety of substances: charcoal, ash, clay, and termite mounds. Most participants (94%) identified health factors, such as pregnancy, hunger, or illness, as the reason they engaged in geophagy. Consumable clay was most frequently purchased at the market, though two women reported traditional collection, and multi-step preparation that includes the mixing-in of herbs before selling at the market. Another type of clay was identified as inedible but used topically for skin infections and rashes. Participant responses support the medicament hypothesis about the etiology of geophagy. Our next steps are to analyze the consumed earth chemically and mineralogically to assess whether it provides protection and/or micronutrients.

This project was supported by a faculty research grant from the American Public University System.