Ever wonder why some people eat strange substances like bark and dirt? Or why New Mexico has a tiny, jagged panhandle?
BY M. BRIANNA STALLINGS
Hello, my inquisitive citizens! This is The Sassy Lass, your friendly neighborhood brainiac. This time out, I’ve got two curious questions on deck.
Q: I understand that aspirin was derived from tree bark, which makes me think that at some time in human history, someone gnawed on trees and discovered it cured their headache. I’ve also heard that women in the South eat dirt. Why on earth, pardon the pun, would they do that? This idea of people eating “stuff” later found to have medicinal effects intrigues me. When did tree gnawing begin, and what benefits come from eating dirt?
A: You’re right, Nature Nibbler – someone in our evolutionary history did scarf bark, namely Australopithecus sediba. An examination of their dental plaque determined that these human ancestors ate tree bark, as well as fruit and leaves, two million years ago.
After we descended from the treetops, humans discovered the medicinal properties of flowers, weeds and especially willow tree bark.
The word “aspirin” traces its roots to Spiraea, a biological genus of shrubs rich in salicylic acid, which reduces inflammation, lowers body temperature and relieves pain. Early incarnations of aspirin were made by boiling white willow bark, although its acidity causes major stomach upset. The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians refer to it in pharmacopoeia, and Greek physician Hippocrates even recommended salicylic tea to alleviate the pain of childbirth.
Today’s aspirin was made in the 1890s by chemist Felix Hoffmann and was available over the counter by 1915.
As for a dirt diet, count yourself privileged if soil isn’t on your menu. Earth eating, or geophagia, includes the consumption of dirt, chalk or clay. It is a widespread practice amongst animals, and human geophagia goes back more than 2,000 years.
These days, people who gobble ground are often dirt poor. Starving Haitians will eat biscuits made from soil, salt and Crisco to fill their bellies; ironically, long-term consumption leads to malnutrition. Still, it seems that dirt has things – including minerals such as calcium, B12 and iron – that some folks don’t get anywhere else.
Speaking of tummy aches, ever wonder where Kaopectate got its name?
It’s from kaolin clay, originally an active ingredient in this OTC diarrhea treatment. It is used to make porcelain and paint; kaolin is also eaten as an appetite suppressant and is one of many bizarre cravings reported among pregnant women.
Sandersville, Ga., is the “Kaolin Capital of the World,” where Ziploc bags of kaolin sold as novelties are eaten as snacks. For one woman’s story of kaolin addiction, watch the documentary “Eat White Dirt.”
Before you dive into your kid’s mud pie though, be forewarned: health risks of geophagia include tetanus, stomach tears and bowel obstructions.
Q: If you look at a map of New Mexico, the eastern border with Oklahoma shows a little jog outward to the east, away from the border with Texas. For a state so precisely drawn by a bunch of OCD mapmakers to match longitudinal lines, it seems odd. Why does Union County bulge out there?
A: Ah, the mystery of the Union County bulge. Well, Curious Cartographer, it’s not as mysterious as you’d think. Why did the Land of Enchantment end up as the Land of Uneven? Short answer: It was a mistake. The complete answer is a little more complicated.
The eastern border of New Mexico is along 103° W longitude with Oklahoma, then it moves three miles west of 103° W longitude with Texas.
The New Mexico Territory was established in 1850 by the Organic Act, using that longitude as the eastern border. Nine years later, the 1859 Clark Survey screwed up everything. The surveyors’ tools, time tables and sense of perspective meant the line got shifted, and New Mexico lost 603,485 acre; the decision was ratified in 1891.
So we know why the boundary is futzed up. Why has it remained so? Because it was either that or no statehood. Before New Mexico could become a state, it was forced to accept the Clark Survey line. Congress even declared the 1891 ratification to be “a conclusive location and settlement” of the lines. New Mexico begrudgingly accepted the ultimatum in 1912 and earned her statehood.
Got Q’s? The Sassy Lass might have some A’s! Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org today. Your question could be next.
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