We review geophagy, or soil ingestion, in primates. This behaviour is widespread and is presumed to be important to health and nutrition. Primates may engage in geophagy for one or a combination of reasons. Here we present, and make a preliminary assessment of, six nonexclusive hypotheses that may contribute to the prevalence of geophagy. Four hypotheses relate to geophagy in alleviating gastrointestinal disorders or upsets: (1) soils adsorb toxins such as phenolics and secondary metabolites; (2) soil ingestion has an antacid action and adjusts the gut pH; (3) soils act as an antidiarrhoeal agent; and (4) soils counteract the effects of endoparasites. Two hypotheses pertain to geophagy in supplementing minerals and/or elements: (5) soils supplement nutrient-poor diets and (6) soils provide extra iron at high altitudes. In addition to these hypotheses, geophagy may satiate olfactory senses, serve as a famine food and finally may have no function at all. We draw together a large body of information from various sources to assess these hypotheses and suggest some tests to understand the function of geophagy. Our review suggests that primates engage in geophagy for a number of reasons that are nonexclusive. We conclude that mineral supplementation, adsorption of toxins, treatment of diarrhoea and pH adjustment of the gut seem the most plausible reasons why primates engage in geophagy. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.