In 1883 Mr. Hekmeyer, pharmaceutist in chief of the Dutch Indies, exhibited at Amsterdam some specimens of Javanese edible earth, both in a natural state and in the form of various natural objects. A portion of this collection he has placed at our disposal, and has given us some information regarding its nature, use, etc.
These clays, which are eaten not only in Java, but also in Sumatra, New Caledonia, Siberia, Guiana, Terra del Fuego, etc., are essentially composed of silex, alumina, and water in variable proportions, and are colored with various metallic oxides. They are in amorphous masses, are unctuous to the touch, stick to the tongue, and form a fine, smooth paste with water. The natives of Java and Sumatra prepare them in a peculiar way. They free them of foreign substances, spread them out in thin sheets, which they cut into small pieces and parch in an iron saucepan over a coal fire.
Each of these little cakes, when shrunken up into a little roll, looks somewhat like a grayish or reddish fragment of cinnamon bark. The clay is also formed into imitations of various objects.
We have tasted this Javanese dainty, and we must very humbly confess that we have found nothing attractive in the earthy and slightly empyreumatic taste of this singular food. However, a sweet and slightly aromatic taste that follows the first impression is an extenuating circumstance.
According to the account given by Labillardiere, confirmed by the information given by Mr. Hekmeyer, the figures are often craunched by women and children, to the latter of whom they serve as dolls, toys, and even money-boxes, as shown by the slits formed in the upper part of the larger objects, which are usually hollow.
We have not sufficient documents to carry us back to the origin of that tradition that would have it that the human form has been given to certain food preparations from remote times. Savants will not be slow to see in this a vague relic of the horrible festivities that succeeded human sacrifices among primitive peoples. For want of prisoners and of designated victims, a symbolic representation would have gradually developed, and been kept up, though losing its religious character. We merely call brief attention to this obscure problem, not having the pretension to solve it. - Revue d'Ethnographie.