Brief History

The term pica comes from the Latin word for magpie. Magpies show a propensity to eat almost anything, including nonfood items.13 The Eurasian Magpie is Pica pica.

Pica has been known throughout the ages, dating back to 1800 BC in Sumeria, Egypt and China.14 Clay eating for medicinal purposes dates back to 10 BC.10 The eating of dirt and clay was known to the Greeks and Romans and was recorded in a 13th century Latin work.13 The first medical text reference to pica occurred in 1563 with an entry on geophagia (eating earth or soil-like substrates such as clay or chalk) in pregnant women and children.12

Pica still occurs in some modern cultures as a ritualistic practice. Geophagia was a common practice in the southern Unites States during the 1800s. It has been practiced as part of religious ceremonies, magical beliefs and attempts at healing.12 During the 1950s and 1960s, geophagia was so common in the south that one could purchase small bags of clay at bus stops. In addition, as northern migration occurred, bags of special local clay were mailed by southern family members to northern relatives who still craved the clay.13 Currently, white clay can be purchased in southern grocery stores as well as online.2