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Differences and Commonalities in Physical, Chemical and Mineralogical Properties of Zanzibari Geophagic Soils


The function of human geophagy has long been questioned. We sought to test hypotheses concerning its potential physiological effects through analysis of soils and patterns in geophagy behavior. Eleven samples of geophagic soils consumed by pregnant women on Pemba Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania, were characterized according to their color, texture, major element chemistry, trace element chemistry, bulk mineralogy, and clay mineralogy. An epidemiological study (N = 2367) and ethnographic interviews (N = 57) on Pemba yielded information about geophagic behaviors and socio-demographic and biological characteristics of those who consumed earth. The soils varied widely in color, ranging from light red to white through various shades of brown and yellow, and texture ranged from clay to sand. Major element chemistry of the soils also varied greatly; most were low in Fe and Ca. Trace elements, whether of biological or non-biological significance, were uniformly low when compared with normal ranges of mineral soils. The sole commonality among the samples is that all clay fractions were dominated by a kaolin mineral: kaolinite, halloysite, or a mixture of both. Geophagy behavior also varied greatly, with one major exception: a greater proportion of pregnant women (7.1%) and young children (4.5%) consumed earth than non-pregnant women (0.2%) or men (0%). The presence of kaolin mineral in all samples, its palliative and detoxifying properties, and the highest prevalence of geophagy among those most biologically vulnerable suggest that geophagy may be a protective behavior.

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