Craving Earth

Understanding Pica—the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk

Sera L. Young

Columbia University Press

Craving Earth

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Pub Date: February 2011

ISBN: 9780231146098

240 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $26.00£19.00

Pub Date: February 2011

ISBN: 9780231146081

240 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $75.00£56.00

Pub Date: February 2011

ISBN: 9780231517898

240 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $25.99£19.00

Craving Earth

Understanding Pica—the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk

Sera L. Young

Columbia University Press

Humans have eaten earth, on purpose, for more than 2,300 years. They also crave starch, ice, chalk, and other unorthodox items of food. Some even claim they are addicted and "go crazy" without these items, but why?

Sifting through extensive historical, ethnographic, and biomedical findings, Sera L. Young creates a portrait of pica, or nonfood cravings, from humans' earliest ingestions to current trends and practices. In engaging detail, she describes the substances most frequently consumed and the many methods (including the Internet) used to obtain them. She reveals how pica is remarkably prevalent (it occurs in nearly every human culture and throughout the animal kingdom), identifies its most avid partakers (pregnant women and young children), and describes the potentially healthful and harmful effects. She evaluates the many hypotheses about the causes of pica, from the fantastical to the scientific, including hunger, nutritional deficiencies, and protective capacities. Never has a book examined pica so thoroughly or accessibly, merging absorbing history with intimate case studies to illuminate an enigmatic behavior deeply entwined with human biology and culture.

Young brings a fascinating story from the musty cupboard of old wives' tales into the bright light of science. With fluid prose, a storyteller's style, and a restless curiosity, she peels back the surface of a seemingly bizarre and idiosyncratic behavior to produce a marvelous study of social biology with global reach. This is a book that will entertain as it educates, and it will educate everyone who reads it.

Peter Ellison, Harvard University and editor-in-chief, American Journal of Human Biology

Sera L. Young combines a detective's intuition, a scholar's diligence, and her own joyful, indefatigable curiosity to unravel one of the oldest and oddest of human mysteries. I devoured this book like an amylophage on a laundry starch bender.

Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars

Craving Earth is compelling, encyclopedic, and distinctively quirky-an engaging account of eating, soil chemistry, history, religion, ethnography, nutrition, and the social media. It is a book to inspire students and capture the imagination of any reader of the mysteries of geophagia and the idiosyncracies of social life.

Lenore Manderson, Monash University, Australia, and editor, Medical Anthropology

This marvelous book takes the reader on a fascinating historical, literary, and scientific safari. Craving Earth is surely the most in-depth, revealing, and readable publication ever undertaken on geophagia and other aspects of pica. A must read for experts, while also a most enjoyable read for anyone else.

Michael Latham, Cornell University, named Living Legend in Nutrition by the Congress of Nutrition

The human focus of Young's book provides a welcome counterpoint to the strictly medical focus currently available.

David L. Browman, Washington University in St. Louis

A fascinating romp through the history of pica, an eye-opener for the geophagist, and an elegant piece of quantitative evolutionary analysis. Young has produced an engaging, fast-moving text anchored to rich appendices that document pica in history and literature, its prevalence across human populations and subpopulations, and its association with micronutrient deficiencies.

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, University of California, Davis

Young writes like a dream. This masterful work draws upon data, insights, and perspectives from anthropology, history, public health, nutrition, and medicine to offer fascinating answers. A book you'll never forget!

Carole Browner, University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Neurogenetic Diagnoses: The Power of Hope and the Limits of Today's Medicine

Fascinating! With wit and keen scientific insight, Sera L. Young has written the landmark study of pica. It is sure to be a classic in anthropology and nutrition for a long time to come.

Gretel H. Pelto, Cornell University

Quirkily informative.

Adam Kirsch, Barnes & Noble Review

Accessible and engaging. A valuable teaching tool... and a fascinating and well-told story.

Deborah L. Crooks, Journal of Human Biology

A concise, critical summary of what we do and don't know about eating earth, grounded in an exhaustive search for relevant literature and [Young's] own fieldwork in Zanzibar.

Jeremy MacClancy, Times Higher Education


Sacramento News and Review

The work serves a very important purpose.

Cornell Daily Sun

Highly recommended for reading by both interested academics and nonspecialists.

Peter W. Abrahams, Quarterly Review of Biology

Brilliant and very readable.


Completely original, well-written, wide-net book about the craving for and ingesting of non foods, known as pica.

Food Museum Blog

There's a lot to learn in Craving Earth.

James Gorman, New York Times
List of Illustrations
Part I: All About Pica
1. What on Earth?
2. A Biocultural Approach: A Holistic Way to Study Pica
3. Medicine You Can Walk On
4. Religious Geophagy: Sacredness You Can Swallow
5. Poisons and Pathogens
Part II: But Why?
6. Dismissal and Damnation: A Historical Perspective on the Purported Causes of Pica
7. Pica in Response to Food Shortage
8: Pica as a Micronutrient Supplement
9: Pica to Protect and Detoxify
10. Putting the Pica Pieces Together
Appendix A: Notable Moments in the History of Pica
Appendix B: Prevalence of Pica Among Representative Populations of Pregnant Women
Appendix C: Prevalence of Pica Among Representative Populations of Children
Appendix D: Pica in Literature
Appendix E: Association Between Pica and Iron Deficiency and/or Anemia in Cross-Sectional Studies
Appendix F: Association Between Pica with Zinc Deficiency in Cross-Sectional Studies
Appendix G: Predictions
Works Cited
Web Features:

2013 Margaret Mead Award, American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology

About the Author

Sera L. Young is a faculty member of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.