Society problems

Scientists are finding ways to study and reconstruct past smells

In a new call to action published in Nature Human behaviorresearchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, discuss the importance of smell in human history and how and why experts might investigate smells of the past .

In recent years, millions of people around the world have suffered from the loss of sense of smell due to COVID-19. Even those who have avoided infection with the novel coronavirus are experiencing the world of fragrances differently now due to the very masks that provide protection against the virus. This loss of olfaction highlighted the important role of smell in how we perceive and navigate the world, and underscored the links between olfaction and mental and physical health.

Scent has always been an integral part of the human experience, but so far the past has remained largely unscented. Most scents come from organic substances that break down quickly, leaving little room for archaeologists to investigate thousands of years later. Now, a team of researchers from MPI for the Science of Human History is looking for new ways to bring olfactory landscapes of the past to life and use smell to study past experiences, behaviors and society.

“Tracking the scent in the distant past is no simple task,” says Barbara Huber, the paper’s lead author, “but the fact that history records expeditions of discovery, wars and trade traveling long distances to acquire materials with strong olfactory properties – such as incense and spices – reveals how important scent has been to mankind.”

Understanding the sensory dimension of human history and the use of fragrant and aromatic substances can contribute to knowledge of many aspects of the past, including rituals, perfumery, hygiene, cooking, trade and commerce. But because scent is part of how we experience, understand, and navigate the world, ancient scents can also provide insight into broader aspects of the past, from social hierarchy and social practices to the identity of group.

“Smell is a powerful and underappreciated aspect of the human experience,” notes Professor Nicole Boivin, lead author of the study and head of the Department of Archeology at MPI Science of Human History “Smells reach our brain quite directly and motivate us critically — whether it’s to avoid danger, identify something that’s good for us, or remember something from our past, for example.”

“Using only traces of scented substances preserved in artifacts and archaeological material,” adds Huber, “new methods reveal the potent scents that were a cardinal feature of ancient lived realities and shaped action, human thoughts, emotions and memories”.

By harnessing powerful new biomolecular and omics approaches, such as proteomics and metabolomics techniques, and linking new data to information from ancient texts, visual representations, and the broader archaeological and environmental record, researchers are preparing to open up new aspects of the ancient world, our evolution of societies and cultures, and our evolution as a species. The authors of the new paper hope that more research into the rich ‘olfactory landscapes’ of the past will provide insight into sensory worlds of long ago and the diverse ways in which people captured scents from nature in order to shape the human experience.