Last updated January 25, 2018 at 9:58 am
When we took up agriculture, our ability to follow a scent decreased dramatically.
Recent research compared two closely related tribes with different lifestyles, and found that the hunter gatherer tribe could tell odours and colours apart equally well, while the horticultural tribe could not.
This project builds on previous research into the Jahai people, a Malaysian hunter gatherer tribe, which showed that they could tell odours apart as easily as English speakers can tell colours apart.
In fact, their language has a dozen words dedicated to describing smells in extra detail, like one which describes mouldy, musty, and decaying odours.
Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe from Lund University in Sweden wanted to find out if hunter gatherers are particularly skilled at smelling, or if English speakers are particularly unskilled – and how much the sense has to do with culture, as opposed to physiology.
So they identified two tribes as yet unstudied in this way – the hunter gatherer Semaq Beri and the horticulturalists Semalai, who both live in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula.
They tested the abilities of 20 Semag Beri people and 21 Semelai people to name colours and odours by asking in their native language “What smell is this?” or “What color is this?”. The odours they used were orange, leather, cinnamon, peppermint, banana, lemon, licorice, turpentine, garlic, coffee, apple, clove, pineapple, rose, anise, and fish, and the colours were a selection of 80 equally bright colour chips sampled at 20 equally spaced hues.
The Semaq Beri hunter gatherers performed just as well as the Jahai hunter gatherers from the previous research, easily naming odours and colours. Meanwhile, the horticulturalist Semelai performed as well as English speakers, easily naming colours but struggling to name odours.
Majid and Kruspe suggest these results show that when people transition from a hunter gatherer to a less nomadic lifestyle, their sense of smell doesn’t need to be so precise, so they lose the skill.
This result leads to further research questions regarding the influence of cultural adaptations and genetic differences.
This research was published in Current Biology.